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Lake Park-Audubon to ask voters for operating levy hike

Compromise was the name of the game Monday for the Lake Park-Audubon School Board, which was split on whether to ask voters for a new operating levy that would bring in $695 per student or one that would generate $795 per student.

After about an hour of debate, the board took the recommendation of Superintendent Dale Hogie and split the difference: It will ask voters to approve a $750-per-student, seven-year operating levy in November.

The district's current $500-per-student operating levy runs out after next year. If approved by voters Nov. 3, the higher levy would cancel the existing operating levy for next year and replace it with the new levy.

The extra money is badly needed because state funding has been essentially frozen: The district had to cut more than $225,000 from its budget this year, and is asking teachers to accept a pay freeze.

The current operating levy brings in about $343,000 per year.

A $750-per-student levy would generate about $515,000 per year.

The school district's total share of the property tax bill is currently $130 on a $100,000 residential homestead.

That would increase to a total of $169 if voters approve the new operating levy.

It was a tough decision for board members: They were trying to find the magic number that would win approval from voters, while also providing enough money to meet the needs of the district.

All while bearing in mind that residents may be asked to approve a building bond referendum next year, if the district lands enough interest-free bonding authority from the state to make the project feasible.

Board member Bryan Anderson said the operating levy is crucial to the success of the school district, while a building bond for a new school is a secondary consideration.

"If we don't have money to operate the school, a new school doesn't matter," he said, noting that the operating levy is essential to keep class sizes manageable and provide money for teachers, curriculum and equipment.

Added board member Darrel Pederson, "I just want to see it (the operating levy) pass, or we'll be throwing sandbags a year from now -- we'll be sinking."

The supporters of a $795-per-student operating levy appeared to have enough votes to pass the measure -- with board members Rick Ellsworth, Mike McIntire, Pederson, and Jeff Swetland voicing support.

Swetland, in particular, wanted to make sure the district set the levy high enough to take care of its needs. "This is going to go for seven years," he said. "I'd rather not come back in several years," asking voters for more money because the levy wasn't set high enough in the first place, he added.

Those who favored a lower levy -- Bryan Anderson, Dale Binde and Vicky Grondahl -- were concerned about voters rejecting the levy, which would leave the district in desperate straits, about opposition in the Cormorant lakes area, and about the potential impact on a building bond vote next year.

After Hogie recommended a $750-per-student levy, Ellsworth supported that amount in a motion.

Swetland, McIntire and Binde initially opposed the proposal, but the ultimate motion to put a $750-per-student, seven-year operating levy before voters was then approved unanimously by the board.

In related news, the board opted not to pursue about $1.8 million in interest-free bonding authority it was granted by the state for this year.

That amount is only about a tenth of the amount applied for, and board members believe it is not enough to sway "no" voters to support a building bond project for a new school and other improvements.

Hogie said there is a good chance that LP-A will qualify for the full $17.3 million in QSCB bonding authority next year.

That would save the district about $11 million in interest over 16 years, and might be enough to persuade residents to support a building bond package next year.