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Published October 17, 2010, 12:00 AM

Moorhead levy push reaches full speed

District looks to offset $2M deficit next year
Moorhead school leaders hope they are on track to dodge the narrow defeat a school levy request suffered last November.

Moorhead school leaders hope they are on track to dodge the narrow defeat a school levy request suffered last November.

The proposal is identical the second time around: $850 per pupil, seven-year duration, an extra $5.2 million per year.

But a few things have changed: A more active community group has rallied behind the levy. School officials come armed with a breakdown of what the extra money would buy and a discussion about what failing at the polls might entail. They also point out the state’s budget outlook is even bleaker since roughly 50.7 percent of voters shot down the 2009 levy proposal.

Some levy opponents say they are not sold. Chances are that tax­payers’ family budget outlook has not improved, either, they say. And they question whether the district has cut back on expenses enough.

About 80 Minnesota districts posed operating levy questions on the November ballot. In a fraught midterm election focused on economics, said Greg Abbott of the Minnesota School Board Association, the districts might have a tougher time “cutting through the political noise.”

“It’s a lot more work to get your message out,” Abbott said. “You need to let people know what the money is for and why you need it.”

The Moorhead levy would raise taxes on a $100,000 home by $179 a year and on a $200,000 home by $358.

School officials point out that as state funding has remained stagnant in the past three years, Moorhead has found itself in a minority – roughly 10 percent – of Minnesota districts without an operating levy. A series of school aid shifts and delays, as well as the specter of aid cuts, have created uncertainty.

Meanwhile, the disparity between per-pupil education revenue in Moorhead and the average state district has grown: $6,830 versus $8,148.

“We can certainly show we’ve been running an efficient operation,” said Assistant Superintendent Wayne Kazmierczak. “We’ve been forced to.”

Moorhead cut roughly $4.5 million from its budget in 2009. After last fall’s levy failed, Superintendent Lynne Kovash predicted the district would face another round of cuts this past spring. But the board ultimately decided to hold off, thanks in large part to an influx in federal stimulus aid, Kazmierczak said.

Now, the district is looking at a

$2 million deficit for next year, which officials project will swell in following years if state funding remains flat.

Moorhead will use $3.7 million of the extra levy money to ward off cuts and deficit spending. It will use the rest to reduce class sizes at the middle and high school level, expand its world language selection, repair technology and make early childhood programs more affordable.

If the levy doesn’t pass, the district is bound for more layoffs, officials say. They have discussed two other measures: expanding the radius around schools in which the district does not offer transportation and switching to a four-day week, which officials estimate could save up to $750,000 a year.

“We’ve heard, ‘Don’t threaten us with that,’ ” Kazmierczak said. “That’s not our intention. Our intention is to explain there will have to be significant changes in how we operate if our revenue picture ­doesn’t change.”

District critics counter that Moorhead residents contend with underemployment, stagnant wages and fixed incomes.

“They’re coming at this in a recession,” said retiree Glen Witt of district officials. “This levy would create big hardship on a lot of people in Moorhead.”

What will the levy buy?

Here’s how the Moorhead School District proposes to spend the extra $5.2 million a year an operating levy would bring in:

$3.7 million

Maintain existing programs and staffing levels. Currently almost 90 percent of district revenues comes from the state, which school leaders deem an increasingly unreliable source.

$1 million

Hire roughly 15 teachers to reduce class sizes at the high school and middle school, and maintain class sizes at the elementary level. Class sizes shot up at the secondary level after layoffs in 2009.

$250,000

Replace and repair computer technology and upgrade security cameras.

$150,000

Expand the district’s world language selection. It now offers no languages at the middle school and only Spanish at the high school.

$150,000

Increase access to early childhood programs by, for instance, eliminating fees to the district’s expanded-day kindergarten program.

For more information, visit the district’s website at www.moorhead.k12.mn.us.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

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