Sauk Rapids-Rice and Royalton seeking operating levies

Neither school district currently has a voter-approved levy 

By Tina SnellStaff Writer

Both the Royalton and Sauk Rapids-Rice school districts are asking taxpayers to pass operating levies Tuesday. Royalton to fund technology, textbooks and transportation; Sauk Rapids-Rice to fund transportation, textbooks, support services and elective classes, along with maintaining class sizes.

Due to increasing costs of educating students, and the state per-pupil funding running behind in its delivery, it has increasingly become each district’s responsibility to fund much of the education of its students. Neither Sauk Rapids-Rice nor Royalton currently have operating levies.

The Royalton Schools’ operating referendum is asking for $350 per pupil annually for four years. The operating referendum which did not pass in 2011 resulted in $328,902 in budget reductions and revenue increases.

Royalton Superintendent Dr. Jon Ellerbusch said the district is still in need of purchasing one bus each year, at a cost of approximately $85,000 each, updating technology and reviewing and adopting curriculum for pre-kindergarten through grade 12.

“Technology has become an essential part of basic education for all students,” said Ellerbusch. “Just a few years ago, graduation requirements focused on the basic skills. Today, requirements focus on rigorous preparation for postsecondary education and careers. This levy will make it possible for us to expand the number of College in the Schools and Advanced  Placement courses offered to high school students.”

If passed, the operating referendum for Royalton would generate $310,951 annually for four years. The state of Minnesota will pay $158,585 and locally, the taxpayers will pay $152,366.

“Without the referendum passing, Royalton will not receive the state’s portion,” said Ellerbusch. “Because some cities in Minnesota are wealthier than others, the equalization formula was put in place by the state to even out the inequities in funding. Royalton would receive approximately 51 percent of the referendum funding from the state.”

Ellerbusch said that by passing the referendum, quality programs and academic successes will be maintained and improved. If it passes, the monthly property tax increase on a home valued at $100,000 will be approximately $6.13 and for a home valued at $200,000, it will be $12.25.

In August, the Royalton School Board passed a resolution stating the money generated from this referendum will be used solely for transportation, technology and curriculum review and adoption. It will not be used for raises to district employees.

Dr. Dan Bittman, superintendent of the Sauk Rapids-Rice School District, said that 90 percent of school districts in Minnesota rely on operating levies. His district is asking taxpayers to pass an annual  $1.7 million levy for basic expenses for the next six years or $380 per student.

“The average levy in Minnesota provides an additional $899 per pupil. We receive nothing,” he said. “The state acknowledges Sauk Rapids-Rice ranks 334 out of 338 districts with the lowest amount of revenue ($1,100 less than the state average) per student.”

With 4,000 students, Sauk Rapids-Rice has an average of $4.4 million annual income less than other Minnesota districts.

Bittman said Sauk Rapids-Rice has been recognized by the state for its fiscal management.

If the Sauk Rapids-Rice levy passes, transportation fees will be eliminated.

“Minnesota requires that elementary students living within one mile of the school and middle school and high school students living within two miles of the school pay a fee for transportation, capped at $400 per year,” said Bittman.

The operating referendum will be used to fund textbooks, support services, curriculum and elective classes such as DECA, culinary arts and agriculture. If it does not pass, reductions will begin with the elective classes.

Monies will be used to fund support services which includes, among other areas, counseling in collaboration with county and state agencies.

Bittman said homeowners would see a property tax increase of $1.92 a week for property valued at $125,000.

“Without this referendum, the district will have to look at reductions within all non-state requirements,” said

Bittman. “Eighty percent of any district’s budget is personnel. Twenty percent is for all the rest. That includes utilities, curriculum and more. If cuts occur, it will be in positions.”

Bittman said the state has acknowledged that Sauk Rapids-Rice currently has some of the highest class sizes in Minnesota. If the referendum does not pass, class offerings will be reduced.

“The students have to go somewhere, so other classes will increase in size even further,” he said. “This will also spill over to the elementary schools.”

Sauk Rapids-Rice has cut $3.7 million from its budget since 2007. Bittman said that so far all the possible cuts have been done to not impact the classroom. Any future cuts will surely impact learning and student offerings.

“I believe the district has been transparent, responsive and has done a great job in communicating with the taxpayers. I believe we have strong support,” said Bittman. “People recognize that strong schools benefit communities. They help increase property values and attract new people to the area.

“The district does not receive funds to keep curriculum materials current in all areas or to keep up with changing technology,” he said. “With the increasing state and national focus on student achievement, it is our responsibility to provide the resources our students need to compete and be successful. It is our obligation to continue to improve.”