As the Nov. 7 referendum looms, it’s now or never for the La Crescent-Hokah School District, according to superintendent Kevin Cardille.
“We have become a reactive district, and not a proactive one — and that’s not good,” said Cardille, speaking last Monday in his office. “But we can’t afford to be proactive. If a light bulb is flickering, we wait until it dies. We take every bit of light we can out of it. That’s where we’re at, so we can’t have the lights go out.”
Last November, the district attempted to pass an operating levy during the presidential election that would have raised the current levy amount to $626.72 per student. But voters rejected the increase, leaving the district about half a million dollars short for school year, which forced cutbacks of around $300,000. The district dippthe ed into its fund balance to make up the rest of the loss, Cardille said.
The district is asking voters to approve an $850 levy on Nov. 7 that would last for 10 years, and bring in a little over $1 million annually. Cardille notes this is below the state average of $879 per pupil. Still, the new levy represents a considerable increase on the current levy of $235 per pupil, which expires in December.
According to the district’s levy calculator, the increase would cost the owner of a $100,000 home an additional $101 in annual taxes, or $201 for the owner of a $200,000 home. But for Cardille and other supporters, the price is worth it.
“Let’s say this doesn’t pass, then I don’t even know where to start,” said Cardille. “Because we don’t get the increase, and we don’t get the renewal. So it would be be ugly.”
The district has already been making cutbacks for years, said Teresa O’Donnell- Ebner, a member of Lancer Strong, an advocacy group that’s in favor of the levy, and she wants to see the trend reversed to strengthen the school district.
“If we don’t support a healthy vibrant school system, La Crescent cannot thrive,” she told the La Crescent City Council recently. “We cannot continue the pattern we’ve seen with more deep cuts.”
The district currently has 1,036 student, a significant drop from 2001 when it had around 1,660, Cardille said. With enrollment dropping by almost a third, the district reduced staff at close to the same ratio, although Cardille said enrollment numbers have stabilized within the past three years. In 2001 the district had 109 teachers, and is now down to 79.
All AP college courses have been cut from the district, Cardille said, electives have been limited and many teachers are spread between teaching both middle and high school classes. To retain the students seeking college-credit courses, Cardille said the district has matrticulation agreements with both Western and Southeast Technical College in Winona.
But the district has worked to trim spending wherever it can without impacting students, Cardille said.
“We’re trying to be more efficient, and that’s helping us,” said Cardille. “It’s helping us maintain our spending, and instead of spending money on electricity, we are spending it on kids. Instead of spending on water, we’re spending on kids. That’s our goal.”
It’s difficult to find public opposition to the levy. Even Houston County Republican Party Chairman and Caledonia resident Jason Robert Reiland, not someone who usually supports higher taxes, said he supported the levy.
Among dozens of letters sent to this newspaper about the levy, all but one have been in favor of a “yes” vote. The sole opponent argued that the levy would again raise property taxes and wondered how long it would be before the district returned for money.
But despite the lack of public opposition, supporters of the levy are still wary given the result of last November’s referendum, and have attempted to improve communication with the public on what they see as the benefits of the levy ahead of the vote.
The district is legally obligated to send out a flier to all landowners in the district, although Cardille said last year some never got one. This year, to make sure every property owner received the information, the district sent two fliers. As well as the mailed material, several public meetings have been organized by the district and supporters about the referendum.
Included in the information mailed out to property owners, was a levy tax calculator, which Cardille said allowed property owners estimate how much more they’ll pay annually and monthly with if the levy is approved. He hopes the calculator will alleviate any concerns about the scale of the proposed tax increase.
Cardille said that if the levy fails, the first cuts would likely be to sports and other co-curricular activities, which he fears could fuel an enrollment decline.
But the superintendent said the district has been focusing on a positive outcome from the referendum. Course handbooks for next school year need to be set by February, when students start to register, so Cardille wants the staff to be ready to plan with a positive mindset. The superintendent said he’s been pleased by many of the comments he’s heard in favor of the levy, especially from some of the area’s senior citizens.
“The comment that I’ve heard a lot from older citizens, that I very much appreciate, is that my kids went through this school, and are doing very well,” said Cardille. “Somebody paid for my kids, so now I gotta pay for their kids.”