Brooklyn Center schools Superintendent Keith Lester has dubbed Sept. 13, 2005, as his "day that will live in infamy."
It was his second day on the job as the district's chief executive, and district voters turned down a district tax levy request. Five years later, five more levy requests have gone down to defeat at the hands of district voters.
But with money scarce, and no new state funding on the horizon, district officials see only one course left to them: Go back to the voters on Election Day, Nov. 2, with a request for more money.
"We've got a major federal grant that's expiring this year," Lester said. "Unless we get another major federal grant that's going to be a problem. ... We hired a lot of teachers with that money. We'll need to find another revenue source, get a levy referendum passed or pray for money to fall out of the sky."
The school board this month approved holding the referendum, which will ask for two things: one is to renew a current levy that will expire in the 2011-12 school year and raises about $350,000 a year; the other is to start up another levy that voters declined to renew in 2005, and which would raise $250,000 a year. Chairwoman Cheryl Jechorek said the school board hasn't decided yet whether to pose those requests in one or more ballot questions, and whether to add an inflationary increase to the $250,000-a-year levy request. Both requests would be for 10 years, she said.
Jechorek said she knows that, given the district's recent track record with its voters, the odds are long.
"We have to be optimistic, or why are we going through this?" she said. "But, realistically, I think people are pretty entrenched now."
Jechorek cited several reasons why voters have been saying no. For one thing, a majority don't have kids in school. Also, there is some resentment over the high numbers of students from other districts who open-enroll in Brooklyn Center schools to take advantage of the rigorous International Baccalaureate program at the high school but whose parents' property taxes help fund their home districts, not Brooklyn Center.
Jechorek said many residents are still peeved at the design of Earle Brown Elementary School, which they judged to be overly elaborate even though the school came in under budget when it opened in 2003. Also, the dearth of commercial property within the small confines of the district means much of the property tax burden falls on homeowners. In addition, the district has large low- and fixed-income populations.
The levy up for renewal would be used to keep technology up-to-date district-wide. The additional levy would be for "general fund stuff, teachers and secretaries, textbooks and supplies, what have you," Lester said. Currently, the district is looking at $300,000 in budget tightening next year, including $75,000 to $100,000 in actual cuts. The rest involves savings from such practices as combining sports; varsity and junior varsity, for instance.
Because the district is in what state law calls "statutory operating debt," and will be $1.4 million in the red by the end of the current school year, the board could have chosen to hold a levy referendum on dates other than the November Election Day. Board members decided on Election Day, however. Jechorek said it was a tough choice.
"Does it get lost in the shuffle with everything else going on?" she said. "We've also heard on our failed levies [defeated at the polls on other dates] that we're trying to sneak something through."
There could be relief in sight coming from other sources. Because of the district high school's status as an underperforming school, resulting mostly from low state test scores, the district might be in line for $1 million in federal grants over the next three years. Plus, the district could start getting revenues next year from an online school it helps to manage and which serves 400 to 500 students statewide. Those earnings could amount to a couple of hundred thousand dollars, Lester said.
Norman Draper • 612-673-4547