A decision by the Minnesota State Legislature this past session allows school districts to levy more money per pupil unit, and the NBAPS School Board took full advantage of that new authority at its Dec. 12 meeting.
The decision wasn’t made without any contention, however.
Board Members Randy Westby and Jay Falk voted against using the property tax levy authority, which is divided into two parts — the first permits districts to levy an additional $300 per pupil unit, and in North Branch’s case, the district also chose to levy another $212 per pupil unit through what is called a “location equity index.”
Both Westby and Falk said they’re in favor of more funding for the school district, but they didn’t think the authority granted by the state was the best way to do it.
“I would love to have more money for the schools; we have fantastic programs we could spend that money on,” Falk said. “I am, however, vehemently opposed to the manner in which we’re proposing to collect that money. In my opinion, this is taking voter rights away; just because the state says that we can do that doesn’t make it the right thing to do.”
Westby echoed that sentiment.
“The reality that is that I’ve gotten calls from people this week who are seeing greater than 20 percent tax impact on their properties,” Westby said. “We can’t be making that decision — in good conscience, no. This is a case where the state kicked the can. It was their obligation to fix the funding formula. They laid it on the backs of our taxpayers in this community.”
Before the 4-2 vote to approve the funding, Director of Finance and Personnel Randi Johnson explained the overall tax impact isn’t that much greater than the levy the board approved two years ago.
With the additional $512 per pupil unit, which equates to about $1.2 million more coming into the district next year, the levy is about 1.5 percent higher than the final levy of two years ago.
Last year, Johnson said, was an abnormality when it comes to the district’s levy. The levy dropped that year by 8.5 percent because of one-time budget adjustments.
She also noted this non-voter-approved levy has more of a positive financial impact on the district than voter-approved ones the district had pursued for more than a decade because of a state match to any property tax dollars collected.
The board members in favor of the funding noted the system isn’t perfect, but it’s the best tool they have at their disposal right now to help the cash-strapped district.
“I think sometimes you have to see the forest through the trees and step back and look at how this money will impact our kids in the future,” Board Member Tim MacMillan said. “I see what kids are getting in other districts and what our kids are getting here, and our kids need to compete. The way we can make this happen is providing a levy like this.”
Salo said she knew there wouldn’t be unanimous consensus on the decision to approve the $512 per-pupil-unit maximum, but it was a decision that needed to be made for the betterment of the students in the district.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve had differences of opinions on this issue,” she said. I’ve sat here for 14 years; I’m not here advocating for higher property taxes. I’m here advocating for better education for our students.”
She added, “The state gave us this opportunity. Is it perfect? No. But we’ve been asking them to do something for many, many years. I’m not going to take that opportunity away from the kids.”
Board Member Kirby Ekstrom called the funding a “band-aid” on the “wound” that is the state school funding formula.
“As someone who has been out there advocating for equitable funding in Minnesota – we know the funding formula isn’t correct, but we have to work with the cards we’ve been dealt,” he said. “We need a strong, stable school district to attract families. “This (funding) will make it stronger.”
During the July 11 board meeting, Superintendent Deb Henton recommended that if the board utilized the $512 per-pupil-unit funding, the district should consider going back to a five-day school week.
If the board does make that decision next year, the five-day week likely wouldn’t be instituted until the following school year.
Other board actions
Also during the meeting, the board:
• Ratified a new, two-year contract with the North Branch Education Association, the district’s teachers union. The contract includes:
– Step and lane increments in both years of the contract.
– A salary schedule restructure during second year of contract.
– A guarantee of minimum wage increases in the form of one-time stipends each year of the contract for all teachers.
– Increased contributions to health insurance in the second year of the contract.
• Accepted the annual audit. Mary Reedy, an auditor from the CliftonLarsonAllen accounting firm said the audit was “very clean, as was expected.”
No adjustments were needed to any of the district’s financial records, and the audit showed the district did well with its general fund.
“There was a projected $756,000 loss (in the general fund), and you came out at a $4,000 loss,” Reedy said. “That’s just huge. It was very well done by the board to keep expenditures down.”