Friday, September 24, 2010

Why I voted against the preliminary levy

I got an irate email from a citizen berating me for the fact that the Board of Education is considering a property tax increase for next year. I said, wait a minute, I voted against the increase proposal along with my colleague Dr. Les Green. But, his email claimed, we board members all got together and agreed that the board members who were up for election would vote no, and the ones who weren't up for election would vote no. Wow, that's a bit of paranoia, and totally false.

Five board members voted to consider the possibility of a tax increase next year. Three of the yes votes are up for election (two for a board position and one for a state office.) Two of the yes votes, Lalley and Harner, are not up for election. Two board members voted against considering the possibility, myself and Dr. Green, and I'm up for election this year, and Dr. Green is not. If the Board of Education was going to try to manipulate things (and we did not) then we could have arranged it so that the three board members up for election for school board voted no, and the four not up for election voted yes. We voted the way we voted, because that is what our conscience told us to do.

The vote on Thursday did not impose any tax. The people who voted for the preliminary levy did not vote to raise taxes: they voted to preserve the option to raise taxes in the event that the State imposed slashing cuts. They said, if those slashing occurs, we want to have the option to consider an increase, as painful as that may be. Dr. Green and I voted against the preliminary levy because we wanted to send the message that would could not support the tax increase option when that option came before the board for final approval. I had several reasons for taking this position. First, we are in the midst of a financial crunch that is impacting families and business in our community. While it is true that our district has the lowest tax rates of the big four neighboring districts here, I just didn't feel that this is the time to consider an increase. Second, last year, when we did our bond and levy, I said that I would support it, because we would NOT be increasing property taxes. And, in fact, our property tax rate stayed exactly the same, or dropped just a bit. I felt that having made that commitment, I needed to stay true to my word.

Third, I believe that the funding crisis that we face here is manufactured by irresponsible policies at the State level, and it is time that we here in St. Cloud and elsewhere in Minnesota School Districts say, enough is enough, stop imposing spending mandates on local districts without the funding to pay for those mandates. Last night, I mentioned. that the Anoka School district had a ten million dollar shortfall, that it made up by using $3 million of its fund balance, cutting 74 licensed positions and 47 unlicensed positions. I pointed out that at the same time, State mandates forced Anoka to spend $28 million more than revenues provided for special education. Anoka is forced by law to spend 28 million dollars than it has. If the state merely provided Anoka with full revenues for special education, Anoka would not have been required to make cuts at all: it would have been able to reduce property taxes substantially by eliminating its operating referendum.

There is a direct connection between the amount of property taxes at the local level and State unfunded mandates. In our school district the state is forcing us to spend $8 million more than we have for special education. We have frozen that budget for five year now, and every year, the state takes more away from us, making our deficit bigger. If the State fully funded its special education mandate, we could eliminate our operating referendum entirely, and still have money left over to spare. The only reason that we have property taxes here in St. Cloud for operations is that the State forces us to spend money that we don't have revenue for and they keep increasing the size of the mandate deficit. So my vote said, enough is enough, governor and legislators get this fixed.

If you want to help us do something about property taxes here in St. Cloud, I suggest you talk to the republican and democratic candidates for State office. Just ask them if they will promise to fully fund special education. Tell them our school district has cut every last dollar that the law allows us to cut; we can't cut another dime, because its against the law. Ask them if they will promise to join with other legislators and stop making us run our special education program at a deficit. Tell them if we did that in St. Cloud, we could cut property taxes significantly. Ask Banian, Gotwald, Hosch, Pederson and Hentges: Do you promise to stop making school districts run their special education programs at a deficit.? Don't take BS and evasion for an answer.

I've tried to be a straight shooter on this topic. I will not vote to increase property taxes this year. Its King, Gotwald, Hosch, Pederson or Hentges--Dayton, Emmer, or what's his name, that are going to have to decide whether to run our district in the ditch by continuing Pawlenty's practice of forcing up the cost of special education while driving down financial support for our district. Right now, the governor candidates and most of the legislative candidates are not facing up to this issue. So far, none of the republicans, and most of the Democrats, won't even talk about this issue. School property taxes are largely the result of the nearly half billion dollar special education deficit passed onto school districts by the governor and legislature ever year.

Later this year, the board will have to decide whether to increase property taxes. Dr. Green and I have said that we will not support that. But no other board member has yet voted to actually increase property taxes. The yes votes merely said that they refuse to decide until they know what the state is going to do. And that is not a lunatic position, as some have portrayed it. While I happen to have landed already in the No-camp, I think it is very unlikely that there will be any yes-votes at all when the time comes, unless state legislators inflict major further cuts in public education.

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