After $34 million worth of deep cuts and an unsuccessful levy referendum in 2010, the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district is hoping taxpayers will approve a $10 million funding increase this fall to avoid making even more dramatic reductions.
On Monday, the board unanimously approved putting a single question on the ballot this November to revoke the district's existing $20 million levy and replace it with a $30 million measure.
If approved, the 10-year referendum would raise taxes by $184 a year on an average-priced home and kick in with the 2014-15 budget. Voters approved the current, $1,111 per-pupil levy in 2005 for a 10-year term.
Simply put, District 196 needs the additional money "to continue and maintain the level of programming we have right now," said Superintendent Jane Berenz.
Due to state funding that hasn't kept pace with inflation, the district has had to slash $34 million from the budget over the past three years, Berenz said. While the Legislature increased education funding by $485 million in May, "one biennium's not going to make up for a decade," Berenz said, explaining that much of that funding will go to specific programs such as all-day kindergarten.
Cuts have resulted in reductions in programming and transportation, along with increased activity fees. Nearly 200 teacher and support staff positions were cut between 2010 and 2012, Berenz said at last week's board meeting.
The board has worked hard to keep educational standards high in the district, trying to avoid gutting essential services and programs, Berenz said, but "it's a different time now and we need to ask for help," said at a July 22 meeting.
The "most invisible piece" of the reduction process has been employee cuts and pay freezes, Berenz said, noting that "we've cut and held employee salaries down — they have actually gone down the past three years."
If the levy doesn't pass, about $10 million will have to be eliminated from the 2014-15 budget. In 2015-16, $23.5 million in reductions are projected.
The board considered several factors when deciding the amount to ask for, including the results of a recent community survey and the fact that voters rejected a $16 million levy referendum question in 2010.
The July survey showed widespread support for a referendum, just not at the level the district asked for three years ago, Berenz said.
The survey indicated that 64 percent of respondents said they would support some kind of tax increase.
"In looking to the future, you don't want to have a referendum and turn around and make cuts right away," she said. "But you want to be able to have a referendum that the community will support, so that's the balance of it, and that's how we arrived at $10 million."
Survey results said the district could be "very confident" in asking for $4 to $8 million more, Berenz said. Respondents also said they would be willing to support a levy if the additional money went to specific areas, like STEM, early childhood and college-in-the-schools programs, Berenz said.
In the coming weeks, the district will create a list of exactly what will be cut if the levy doesn't pass, so that voters can see how their vote will affect the budget.
"We don't put this list out to frighten people or to make them vote a certain way," said Art Coulson, school board member. "We're just trying to be very clear what the impact will be if we make these cuts."
That list will be part of a larger levy communication effort by the district in the coming months, Berenz said. "We can't communicate enough, I know that," she said.
School board member Mike Roseen encouraged voters to do their own levy and school funding research if they're uncertain.
"I would suggest to people that may be skeptical … to look at some of those numbers and go onto the websites that are available and make your own choice," Roseen said. "You will see that the numbers that we've presented to you for a long, long time are all real and all true."