HJ/EDHerald Journal, Feb. 6, 2006

Exploring the HLWW referendum issue

By Dave Cox
Staff Writer

Voters in the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted (HLWW) school district have a decision to make.

The decision is not whether they will spend money on their school district, or whether taxes will increase.

Voters will need to decide if they will spend money on long-term solutions, or temporary measures that will, in the words of HLWW Superintendent George Ladd, “leave them nothing to show for it.”

On Tuesday, Feb. 21, voters will be asked to vote on two questions.

The first question on the ballot is for a 25-year, $27,330,000 bond issue.

The proposal includes a new 500-student high school, a bus garage, improvements to elementary schools, and new athletic fields.

The second ballot question is for a $460,000 bond issue for additional parking at the high school, a storage building, and improved technology systems.

The real cost of open enrollment

The district lost $1,327,662 this year to open enrollment.

This total consists of $4,974 per student in state aid, and $192 per student in levy money.

“It is a monumental problem for this district,” Ladd said.

The district lost 316 students to open enrollment this year, and only gained 59 from other districts, leaving a disparity of 257.

Most of the surrounding districts have a positive in/out number, while HLWW does not, according to Ladd.

Students leaving the district through open enrollment affects the quality of education that the district is able to provide.

“The more people we have here, the easier it is to create curriculum and offer electives,” Ladd commented.

The outcome of the vote can affect people’s perception of the future of the district. Ladd stated that the district has lost a few more students each time a referendum has failed.

How much will you pay?

School taxes in the HLWW district are currently among the lowest in the area.

Only the Glencoe-Silver Lake and Lester Prairie districts pay less school tax, and Lester Prairie is in statutory operating debt.

If the ballot questions are approved, the school tax for the HLWW district will still be in line with other area districts.

For homeowners who own property with a taxable market value of $150,000, the school taxes payable in 2006 will be $365.

If the ballot questions are approved, the tax amount would increase by $332 (question 1) and $5 (question 2) bringing the total to $702.

However, the ballot questions include some lease expense and health and safety improvements that are already included in the tax levies approved last December.

Passage of the proposals would allow the district to deduct these amounts from the levy, which would result in a reduction of approximately $65 in the example above, according to Ladd.

Thus, the school tax payable on a $150,000 home in 2006 would be $637.

This would be less than the school tax payable in the Maple Lake district ($677), and only slightly more than Delano ($627), Watertown-Mayer ($607) and Dassel-Cokato ($600).

Ladd noted that some of these districts will be bonding for expansion or operating funds in the next few years, which could increase the school taxes in those districts.

The school tax is only one component of the total property tax statement.

There are two programs that can reduce the taxes payable for some Minnesota taxpayers.

The first is the Regular Minnesota Property Tax Refund.

This refund is available to owners of residential homestead and agricultural property with a maximum income of $87,780 for families with no dependents.

For households with dependents, the income limit increases with family size, up to $106,980 for households with five or more dependents.

Refunds under this program depend on income and total property tax.

The maximum refund for 2005 is $1,640.

The second program is the Special Tax Refund.

In order to qualify for this program, net property tax must have increased more than 12 percent from 2005 to 2006, and the amount of the increase must have been $100 or more.

The maximum special refund is $1,000.

The amount of the refund is 60 percent of your property tax increase in excess of 12 percent, or $100, whichever is greater.

To determine eligibility and refund amounts, taxpayers need to complete Minnesota Tax Form M1PR (available online at www.taxes.state.mn.us).

Land issues

The district does not own enough land to expand on the current high school site.

“The state will not allow us to do much with this site,” Ladd said.

The district owns 9.3 acres on the current high school site, and there is a total of 36 acres in the HLWW district.

In contrast, the Delano School District owns 106 acres, Annandale has 82 acres, and Maple Lake has 68 acres, according to Ladd.

Ladd said that the state land requirement for a high school is 35-40 acres, plus one acre per 100 students.

There is a cost associated with waiting.

“St. Michael is paying three or four times the price for land that HLWW is proposing to pay. The school has to compete with developers and pay the market rate for land. We don’t want to get into that situation here,” Ladd said.

Operating expenses

Questions have been raised as to how the district would cover operating costs for the new high school, and expanded Waverly and Winsted elementary schools.

Ladd said that funds for operating expenses will come from a variety of sources.

Some of the money would come from utility savings by replacing an old inefficient building with a new energy-efficient facility.

Approximately $18,000 that is currently being spent for utilities for the portable classrooms would be re-directed to the other buildings in the district.

The district would also be able to redirect the $142,819 of capital funds currently being used to lease the portable classrooms.

The district has an existing $101 per student operating levy that will expire in 2007-2008, and a new $550 per student operating levy that will start next year and last for five years.

Ladd said that the board will need to consider extending both levies whether or not the referendum is approved.

The alternative

“The problem does not go away with a “no” vote. We still have students to educate.” Ladd said.

If the referendum does not pass, the district would need an estimated $7.4 million to cover roof repairs and upgrades to meet fire marshall, ADA, OSHA, and code requirements

Ladd said that passage of the referendum would result in money being spent on bricks and mortar that could serve the district for 50 years, while money spent on rent for portable classrooms is a waste, because the district is left with nothing to show for it.

The money to pay for the temporary classrooms comes from other areas, and the district will have to continue to find money for upkeep of the existing buildings, Ladd said.

“It is very costly to remodel. All of us have to make the decision whether it is worthwhile to continue to maintain or replace existing structures,” Ladd commented.

Quality of education

Ladd said that if the referendum does not pass, it will affect the quality of education the district is able to offer.

“Class sizes will continue to get larger. We would like to add programming, but we are not able to do this because there is no physical space. Teachers will not be able to be in their classrooms during prep time because we will need the rooms for other things. In the elementary schools, there is not enough room for reading or math groups. The computer lab may have to move to the library,” Ladd said.

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