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Lake Park-Audubon to seek operating levy in fall

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Lake Park-Audubon to seek operating levy in fall
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The Lake Park-Audubon School District appears likely to put a new operating levy referendum before voters this year.

Judging from preliminary discussion Monday, the school board is leaning towards a seven-year levy that would raise either $695 or $795 per student each year.


That's up from a $500-per-pupil operating levy now in effect.

A $695-per-student levy would bring in about $150,000 more each year than the current operating levy, which expires after next year.

The district could actually use more money -- some board members talked wistfully of a $900-per-pupil levy -- but voters aren't likely to see a levy proposal that high, for several reasons.

For one, the board wants the levy to pass, and fears the district's cause could be hurt by asking voters for too much, or for a levy that extends for too long -- 10 years, for example.

Second, the district is well-positioned to be selected by the state for two interest-free grants for building projects next year, as part of federal stimulus spending.

If that happens, the district will likely ask voters to approve a building bond, on top of this year's request for a higher operating levy.

The state has not officially announced which school districts will receive grant funding for building projects this year, but LP-A officials have been told informally that the district did not make the cut.

However, LP-A is in good position for next year's round of grants, said Superintendent Dale Hogie.

LP-A hopes to tap into the new federal money to help build a new high school and new/renovated elementary school.

If its two grant applications are approved by the state Department of Education, the district will save nearly $12 million in interest payments over the 16-year life of school-construction bonds.

District voters would still have to approve the bonds needed for the $20.3 million project, but district officials are hopeful that a referendum would be successful next year, thanks to the federal money sweetening the pot.

LP-A school district taxes are now about $120 a year on a $100,000 home.

A $695-per-pupil operating levy would cost about $30 a year more in property taxes.

If the district gets its stimulus grants and a building bond passes next year, that would add another $131 a year to the tax burden.

If both an operating levy and a building bond levy pass, that would put the district's total tax burden at $280 --still far less than the current state average.

The total school property tax burden in Hawley is now $478 per year on a $100,000 home, for example.

It's $201 per year in Detroit Lakes, which will also be asking voters to approve an operating levy this year.

LP-A staff is being asked to take a pay freeze this year, but salaries can't be frozen forever, and the district needs to have enough money to take care of business in the long-term, said board member Dale Binde. He asked the board to consider asking voters for a $795-per-pupil levy.

It's a fine line, Hogie said.

"How high can you go without alienating enough people to vote no, or jeopardizing a potential building bond referendum in the future?" he asked.

There was some discussion about whether to delay implementation of the higher levy until 2012, when the existing operating levy will have expired, or whether it should replace the existing levy and go into effect next year.

"You can delay it," Hogie said. "The (referendum) language can be structured to implement it in fiscal year 2012, but the revenue is needed now -- we've been experiencing cuts already."

Board Member Bryan Anderson said he favors a levy of about $700 per pupil.

"Less than $700 (per pupil) to me is foolish," he said. "There's no point in staying at $500 because we know it's passed in the past -- we're making cuts at this level already."

Board Member Darrel Pederson spoke in support of a $695 per pupil levy, because it has a better chance of passing than a higher levy "and if it doesn't pass, we're up against the wall next year, (when the current operating levy expires)," he said.

Board Member Vicky Grondahl worried that there could be a public backlash if an operating levy is approved but cuts still have to be made, because it didn't bring in enough revenue.

But the board consensus seemed to be that it's important to get an operating levy approved this year, and $695- or $795-per-pupil would be enough to maintain current programs -- although not enough to restore programs already cut, such as agricultural education.

Board member Rick Ellsworth said he understands that the recession is hurting a lot of families in the district, but he believes residents also understand the school district is hurting because it's getting less and less help from the state.

"For years, people have been in denial about what the state will do with money (for schools). Now everybody knows there's no money and no state money on the horizon," he said.

The board will discuss the operating levy further at a meeting on Aug. 31.