NEW ULM - District 88 Superintendent Harold Remme outlined facts and figures behind the district's tax levy referendum at a New Ulm Chamber of Commerce "Hot Topics" breakfast Friday.
The district is seeking voter permission on Nov. 6 to increase its general education revenue by $575 per pupil each year over ten years. This would bring another $1.28 million per year to the district, money the district would use to lower class sizes, increase course offerings, integrate more communications technology into classrooms and develop online education courses.
The district has been cutting into programs and increasing class sizes in the past few years as its revenues have failed to keep pace with costs.
Remme said the state has not kept pace with the cost of education.
"If you look at the last 11 years, during five of those years the state's school funding formula was frozen," said Remme. (The school funding formula determines how much a school may raise per pupil for education, and determines how much of that is paid by the state and by local property taxes.) The average increase in the funding formula over those 11 years was 1.1 percent.
Remme cited a study showing that shows the money per pupil in the state funding formula for education in Minnesota has declined $1,000 when factoring in inflation. And the average value of referendums in state school districts has risen from $352 ten years ago to over $1,000 now.
With a state budget shortfall forecast for the next biennium, Remme said school districts are not looking for a change in this trend. The state has delayed its delivery of funds for school districts to help balance its own budget. The state used to deliver 90 percent of a school's funding during the school year, and the final 10 percent by October of the following year. That changed to 70 percent, then 60 percent delivered during the year, and the state has not repaid those shifts.
School districts have had to borrow money to cover cash flow needs. Remme said District 88 borrowed $3.9 million in 2009, $2.5 million in 2010, $4 million in 2011, and $3.8 million again this year.
The effect of the referendum on local properties can be computed on a tax calculator on the district's web site (www.newulm.k12.mn.us), bu the impact on a home or business with a $100,000 taxable market value would be $118.94 per year, said Remme. That works out to $9.91 per month, or 33 cents per day.
Remme pointed out that farm properties would pay tax only on the home and one acre of land, but not on total acreage or other farm buildings.
Due to budget cuts in the past several years, class sizes in New Ulm are growing. This year kindergarten class sections have 25 to 26 students (the preferred number would be 17 to 20). Grade three and grade five sections have 28 to 29 students, and grade six sections are all at 30 students per classroom.
Remme said that mre than 100 sections in grades 7-12 have more than 30 students per section, and the number of students, which varies by subject, range from 15 to 37.
Without the passage of the referendum, Remme said class sizes would continue to grow, and elective courses and extracurricular courses might have to be eliminated. The district runs the risk of losing a significant number of students to other districts through open enrollment.
Remme said the decision as to what would happen would be made by the new school board. Four board positions are open this election, and at least three new board members will be elected.
Remme said a lack of a quality education system in New Ulm would affect the community's ability to attract new people. Toby Freier, president of New Ulm Medical Center, spoke to that need. He said the hospital has been adding positions and recruiting new employees. About a third of the staff at the hospital are in the Baby Boomer generation, and will be retiring in greaters numbers in the next several years.
Freier said there are challenges in attracting medical professionals to small towns, where smaller staffs mean more on-call time. The pool of potential employees has been shrinking and a good education system is important in attracting new people.
"This is a great opportunity for us," said Freier. "We are at a crossroads. Will we take some bold steps? There are some risks involved, but if we do, we can move up to be more of a regional center for health care. Our challenges will be less."
Jeff Dittrich, of Century 21/Koeckeritz Realty, talked about taking people considering taking jobs in New Ulm on community tours. Schools are important to people who are considering moving here.
"With the Internet, they know all about the schools already," said Dittrich. "These days they are saying our schools are 'iffy'," he said.
Sometimes, if they do take a job in New Ulm, they will locate in a different community and commute so their kids can go to school in a different district.
"We need to get the community on board," said Dittrich. "To me it's a no-brainer."
Dittrich said the issue is personal to him. He has two children in the district, an 11th grader and a 9th grader.
"Our 14-year-old shouldn't have to be talking about the referendum in school," said Dittrich. "She should be focusing on school and studies."
"There's a lot of blame going around - the school board and the administration. I put the blame in the State Capitol. The Legislature has left us in the dust," Dittrich said.
A community committee, ISD Vote Yes, has been organized and is pushing for passage of the referendum this year. The group has produced a video which can be viewed at www.isd88voteyes.org. Tracy Vranich, a member of the group, said the group is focusing on the fact that this vote is about the children in New Ulm, and the video puts extra attention on that.
More information on the referendum is available at the District 88 web site, www.newulm.k12.mn.us.