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School board continues tax discussion

Members of the public engaged in a discussion with the Pine River-Backus School Board concerning a possible board approved tax levy at the Aug. 19 regular meeting.

At issue is the 2013 Omnibus Tax Bill, which gives the Pine River-Backus School Board the legal authority to increase its operating levy from $1.02 per student up to as much as $300 per pupil unit without voter approval.

Monday’s meeting started with a bang, as board invited members of the public to comment.

Resident Donald Christensen asked why the board was taking the power to vote away from residents. Board member Sandy Poferl said it was a legislative decision that gave the board the authority. Poferl said the state had taken the burden of the decision off its own shoulders and put it on school boards throughout the state, which she said makes the boards look bad.

Christensen said the board could still choose to allow the people to vote, and asked why the board was deciding not to. Poferl explained that large cuts had been made to the latest school budget, and the levy would help alleviate stress from those cuts.

Christensen asked if raises were being considered for the teachers. Poferl explained that contract negotiations were under way. Christensen then questioned some of the school’s past expenses.

Board member Jim Coffland stressed the importance of reinstating funding for bus purchases. Christensen asked why the board built a bus garage it doesn’t use, saying the garage only houses school vans and smaller vehicles that could fit in the old bus garage.

“Nobody likes having their taxes and stuff increase, but I can’t think of a better thing to invest in than our kids. And I trust you’re doing the best job you can,” resident Bonnie Lomen said.

Resident Jerry Peterson said, “That just reads taxation without representation. Just because the state allows you to make that choice doesn’t mean you have to take it. They’re just passing the buck, and I’m opposed to that.”

Byron Benesh commended Peterson and Christensen, saying they had accurately described the issue.

“I don’t believe in having a small group represent and take over the referendum. The public vote is important to me,” Benesh said.

The board adopted a resolution to convert voter approved referendum authority to a board approved referendum authority, with board member Katy Botz casting the sole voted against the resolution. The board will make an initial decision on the levy in September, but will not finalize that decision until December.

At an Aug. 12 special meeting, the PR-B board and residents were given a presentation of the monetary impact that an increase in the tax levy could have on the school and local residents. PR-B Business Manager Jolene Bengtson said the school could raise an additional $303,080 in revenue by raising the levy to the maximum limit. Bengtson said state aid would pay 43 percent of that increase and property taxes would pay 57 percent.

For a typical $150,000 market value property, yearly property taxes would increase by $47. For a $200,000 market value property, that amount would be $62 per year.

“As a taxpayer of this district, I’m kind of appalled that the Legislature took some more power out of the voters’ hands and leaves it up to the school board to decide if and when to raise taxes whenever they see fit,” resident Steve Cox said.

Resident Steve Braker asked what the revenue would be used for. Board member Jason Marcum said the money the district would receive from the levy has not been allotted. The board still needs to discuss exactly what it would be used for.

Poferl said that the money raised by the levy could be used to reinstate some of the $447,690 in cuts made in the 2013-14 budget. The cuts included $137,000 from the district’s transportation funds, which would normally be used to update the schools buses; $298,879 by eliminating the new beginnings program; and $20,000 from the elementary and high school technology budget.

Bengtson said, “We have no bus purchases scheduled for the year, and the more you push that off the bigger that gets.”

“Last fall we only levied for the bare minimum,” Poferl said. “We didn’t go for what we were allotted to go for, thinking of our taxpayers and our community, and then we saw what it did to us when it came to do our revised and updated budget and it hurt.”

Board members shared their opinions in individual interviews.

“What I would have liked to have seen happen was to let the taxpayers have their say. I think it’s unfortunate that the state did this to the school board. I think it should remain in the taxpayers’ hands,” Botz said.

“It really is the state’s responsibility to educate the children with the tax dollars. They’ve been shifting that away from themselves,” Botz said.

Poferl said: “I would like to go for the $300. The reason being if we don’t do something now, I’m afraid of what the cuts might be next budget. We try real hard. Our main focus is classroom size. It makes it hard on a whole class if the class is too big.”

Chris Cunningham said: “As this is a preliminary levy I would like to see us go for as much as we can. We will be in a better position to have a balanced budget for the school at that time.”

Some of the cuts board members would like to see reversed included cutting physical education classes and cutting the bus budget. Money from increasing the tax levy would not be available to the school until the 2014-15 school year. Until that time board members said they cannot be certain what expenses the school can expect. This is one reason there is no solid plan for the purpose of the tax money. Members are hesitant to spend money they do not yet have, and they cannot be sure what purchases the school might need in the 2014-15 school year.