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Consultant: Residents ‘ready to have a conversation’

The Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School Board now has more insight into how residents could potentially vote on a new operating levy.

According to a recent survey, 26 percent indicated they would strongly support an operating referendum that would levy $400 “per pupil unit” more than the district’s operating levy approved in 2013. Thirty-eight percent said they would support it while 20 percent oppose it, 12 percent strongly oppose it and 4 percent are unsure.

That levy amount would be about a $17 per month increase in school taxes for the average price home, according to Peter Leatherman of Morris Leatherman Co.

“If we look at the intensity in support versus opposition, it’s better than 2-to-1 strong support versus strong opposition. Folks are ready in this district to have a conversation,” Leatherman said. “In 2015, you had a conversation about facilities. They’re more than willing to have a conversation and consider a potential operating levy for 2019.”

On May 13, the School Board heard the results of a community survey conducted by Morris Leatherman. The survey was conducted between April 24 and May 3 and the company spent an average of 17 minutes speaking with 625 randomly selected district households by phone.

In recent months, district officials and the School Board have mentioned the possible need for another operating levy referendum. The district has said it faces an estimated $25 million shortfall over the next three years. The School Board approved $7 million in budget adjustments for the 2019-20 school year in February in an effort to begin closing the budget shortfall.

Director of Communications Tony Taschner said the district currently has a levy of about $1,150 per pupil unit from the 2013 operating levy. The state maximum for how much school districts can levy is a little over $2,000 per pupil unit, so District 196 is roughly $800 under the state cap.

“To be able to bring anything back, we would need to ask for that level of increased funding,” he said.

Leatherman said the survey asked what the “referendum predisposition” would be if residents heard the district was going to seek a property tax increase. Fifty percent indicated they would be “persuadable;” 26 percent would support anything; 24 percent would be against anything and 1 percent were unsure.

When questioned about what amount they would support for an operating levy increase without any information about the money would be used for, 27 percent said nothing. Twenty-six percent of respondents said $10 per month; 15 percent said $15; 11 percent indicated $20; 10 percent said $5, while 8 percent were unsure. Two percent said $20 while 1 percent said over $30.

“That is only meant to give you a baseline,” Leatherman noted. “The key is whether that number is elastic.”

Survey respondents were given six choices for reasons they would support a property tax increase – expanding mental health support, lower class sizes, middle school academic opportunities, maintain class sizes, reinstate after school transportation and preschool programs.

All of the priorities listed had over 50 percent support from survey respondents. The results were mental health support (77 percent), lower class sizes (76 percent), middle school academic opportunities (75 percent), maintain class sizes (69 percent), reinstate after school transportation (67 percent) and preschool programs (64 percent).

“Going back then and looking at that $10 a month number and knowing the support levels here; that number people are going to be willing to go higher because they support these things in concept,” Leatherman said, adding that the $10 figure is willing to move as long as the referendum doesn’t include “components that divide the community.”

Leatherman said the results from a question about property tax comparisons indicate people are “less hostile” on property taxes from 2018. For example, 66 percent of respondents said total taxes were high in 2018 while 47 percent indicated the same thing in 2019. Forty-six percent indicated school taxes were high in 2018 while 41 percent said the same thing in 2019.

“In both instances being below 50 percent, we would call it a borderline hostile tax climate. But it really is a marked change from the 66 percent last year,” he said.

Next steps

Taschner said the board will likely have more discussion about the topic in June, after the district knows how much state funding it will get over the next two years, and could possibly vote on a question sometime in July. By law the board wouldn’t need to make a decision until August.

The board has options such as revoking the existing operating levy and replacing it with a new levy at a higher amount, or asking for an additional levy without touching the existing one. The board could also choose whether or not to include inflationary increases in a new levy. The 2013 levy revoked an existing levy and replaced it with a higher one, and includes inflationary increases, Taschner said.

Patty Dexter can be reached at patty.dexter@ecm-inc.com.

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