By Collin Lueck
Merrill area residents can expect to receive a survey this week as Merrill Area Public Schools gauges voters’ feelings on a potential operating referendum.
The survey offers voters options to either maintain current programs and services; maintain current programs and services while addressing some or all additional budget items; or indicate they would not support any referendum.
The cost to maintain the status quo would mean a $1.8 million referendum. Because the district will make its final $1.5 million payment for the construction of Kate Goodrich Elementary School in 2018, the debt portion of the school property tax levy would drop in 2019. A referendum to maintain programs and services would take the place of the Kate Goodrich debt payment, causing a minimal increase in the tax levy over current levels.
“The timing couldn’t be better and it’s our hope that our taxpayers and voters see that as well,” MAPS Superintendent John Sample said.
“We’re kind of at a critical point,” added MAPS Finance Director Brian Dasher. “We’ve kind of been limping along to get to this point where that debt was going to fall off and we’d have room to go to a referendum without a very large impact to the property tax levy.”
The survey will also ask voters’ opinions on a number of budget items beyond the current programs and services, that could be funded through an operational referendum. Those include: Maintain technology, enhance the band program, enhance Industrial Education/Shop courses, retain staff, reinstate student support services and address building maintenance. To address all of those budget items, in addition to maintaining current programs and services, would require a $3.6 million referendum. That referendum would represent an average yearly tax increase of $133 on a $100,000 home.
The survey additionally gives an option for a $2.5 million referendum that would address some of the additional budget items. A $2.5 million referendum would raise the taxes on a $100,000 home by $37.
The survey asks voters to also identify areas where they feel the district could make further cuts, ranging from increasing class sizes to closing an elementary school.
Consideration of a referendum is being pushed mainly by continued declining student enrollment in the district.
The district’s state-set revenue limit is largely tied to its enrollment, which continues to decline. The district is forecasting a budget shortfall of $1.5 million next year and $2.5 million the following year.
“We’re losing anywhere between $500,000 and $600,000 a year in revenue limit because of our declining enrollment,” said Dasher.
This year’s enrollment shows a drop of more than 60 students from last year.
The only way for the district to levy more than its state-set limit is to go to referendum. A group has been working since January on plans for presenting a referendum to MAPS district voters. The district has set a deadline of Oct. 30 for voters to complete and return the survey. The results will be reported at a school board meeting on Nov. 14.
“There will be additional discussion by the board on what to do with these results,” Dasher said. “The next step would be to decide what amount and what priorities came out of that survey. If the survey comes back that the community would be opposed to a referendum, then the board is going to have to decide whether to start from scratch (with a new referendum) or drop the idea of a referendum all together.”
MAPS budget cutting measures since 2004 have totaled more than $8.9 million in reductions, including the elimination of 86 positions and closing of two elementary schools.
Without a referendum, the district would likely be looking at further staffing and program cuts to balance future budgets, Sample noted.
“Seventy-one percent of our budget is salary and benefits of our staff, so ultimately that’s going to come down to staff cuts to make up the large portion of that $1.5 million deficit,” he said. “We may be looking at program cuts as well as staff cuts.”
If pursued by the school board, a referendum question would likely appear on the April 2018 ballot.
An informational meeting to answer questions about the survey will be offered Wednesday, Oct. 18, at 5:30 p.m. at Merrill High School.