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Published October 31, 2010, 12:16 AM

Moorhead school levy raises questions

On Tuesday, Moorhead School District voters will be asked to approve an $850-per-student levy that officials say will prevent budget cuts, add teachers to lower class sizes, and bolster foreign language and early childhood education offerings.

By: Helmut Schmidt, INFORUM

On Tuesday, Moorhead School District voters will be asked to approve an $850-per-student levy that officials say will prevent budget cuts, add teachers to lower class sizes, and bolster foreign language and early childhood education offerings.

An identical levy was turned down last year by more than half of those voting, which led to $4.5 million in budget cuts.

Assistant Superintendent Wayne Kazmierczak says that without the levy, more cuts will be needed and school quality will suffer.

Here’s a rundown of some of the most common questions about the levy:

Q. How much will the levy raise?

A. The levy is expected to raise about $5.2 million a year for seven years. It will provide about $850 per student.

According to the Minnesota Department of Education, the average operating levy for the state’s school district’s is $848 in 2010-11 and that will rise to $936 in 2011-12. That is similar to districts that are comparable in size to Moorhead.

What will happen if the levy is not approved?

The School District’s operating deficit would be about $2 million for the next school year if the levy is not approved. That would increase in succeeding years without more state aid or local tax dollars, district officials say.

One potential change would be in transportation. Rather than bus students who live a mile or more from school, that radius could be expanded to two miles or more.

A four-day week has also been discussed and more teaching and staff positions may be trimmed.

What will the money be used for?

The Moorhead School District plans to use the levy to avoid budget cuts and deficit spending. Here’s a breakdown:

  • $3.7 million: Maintain existing programs and staffing.

  • $1 million: Hire about 15 teachers to reduce class sizes at the secondary level and maintain elementary class sizes.

    The student-to-teacher ratio in the middle school is now 33-1, and in the high school it is 36-1. The levy would bring those ratios back to 30-1, Kazmierczak said earlier this year.

  • $250,000: Replace and repair computer technology and upgrade security cameras.

  • $150,000: Expand the district’s language selection. No languages are offered in the middle school and only Spanish at the high school.

  • $150,000: Increase access to early childhood programs, such as the Kinder Plus kindergarten program.

    How much will the levy cost the average homeowner?

    It will raise the property taxes on a $100,000 home about $179 a year. On a $200,000 home, the taxes would go up $358 a year. Taxes on a $300,000 home would go up about $537, the district estimates.

    Commercial and industrial property in Moorhead and the city of Dilworth will not see a net tax increase due to the disparity tax credit that is part of the Border City legislation, which is designed to ease the tax burden for owners of those properties in cities bordering North Dakota.

    Agricultural property will pay taxes only on the value of the house, garage and one acre surrounding them. A property owner’s remaining agricultural land would not see a tax increase.

    Seasonal recreational property will pay no taxes for the proposed referendum.

    What is the percentage of voters needed to approve the levy?

    The levy must be approved by a simple majority of the voters, 50 percent plus one vote, Kazmierczak said.

    When will it take effect?

    The first payment would be made in May, Kazmierczak said.

    What is the average cost of educating a student in Moorhead compared with the state per-pupil cost?

    It costs about $6,830 to educate a student on average in Moorhead. The average cost for the state’s districts is $8,148.

    Why not eliminate extracurricular activities?

    The net cost of student activities is $770,000 a year ($1.1 million total cost, minus $330,000 in revenues). That is about 1.5 percent of the district’s annual budget.

    Arts and athletics help keep students involved in the school community, officials say, and eliminating them would likely lead to a significant decline in enrollment, further worsening the district’s financial condition.

    How many school districts have an operating levy?

    Of Minnesota’s 337 school districts, 302 of them have an operating levy.

    The Moorhead district has a student population of 5,400. Of the 28 school districts in Minnesota with student populations ranging from 3,800 to 8,100, all but three have an operating levy for 2010-11.

    What are enrollment trends for Moorhead?

    Enrollment was 5,379 students at the opening of the school year and is expected to remain stable or grow in coming years, district officials say.

    Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583