The Caledonia Area School District is hoping voters will support a plan to replace an expiring levy when they go to the polls in a Nov. 7 referendum.
During a period in which most Caledonia residents are experiencing at least some form of tax relief from the state, the district is looking to set a new operational levy, and raise its per pupil rate by $65 to $460. Superintendent Ben Barton said the district’s performance continues to be solid, but to continue that success requires additional programming and more staff. Barton also made the case that a $460 per pupil rate is lower than neighboring districts.
Three sets of recent legislation can be credited for the widespread tax relief in the area, Barton explained. The first came In 2016, when the state’s supplemental budget deal cut $2 million from the $15 million debt the district owed on a state capital loan that was issued in 2000 to finance school construction projects. The district then refinanced the remaining debt to reduce the interest rate, and ended with a net savings of $4.2 million.
The second set of related legislation was within the many deals included in this year’s state tax bill, which comprised of the district receiving $1.2 million annually for the next five years for debt relief. Another arrangement in the tax bill granted agriculture and timber land owners a 40 percent reduction on property taxes, providing relief and opportunity to save for struggling area farmers.
Barton said the minimal tax effect is just one of the selling points the district is making in the lead-up to the referendum, and that his primary concern is to keep the schools running at a progressive pace. If passed, Barton said the bump in the levy will be used to support day-to-day operations within the schools.
“We’re trying to keep the highest quality educators in our school, which is huge for us, in rural Minnesota, where there are teacher shortages everywhere,” said Barton. “We also want to be able to add programming, and keep our class sizes down. It’s all about enhancing the personalized learning experience for our students. We’re really trying hard to break out of a system that was created in the industrial age.”
Barton also hopes the local taxpayers take notice of how the district and board pay close consideration to their needs. According to Barton, the district prefers to set their levies on a five-year term instead of 10 out of respect for the taxpayers, and the uncertainty of what the landscape of education will be 10 years down the road.
“We’re trying to show that we are extremely respectful of our taxpayers,” said Barton. “We fought like crazy to have our debt reduced, and we’re still asking for much less than the state average. We’re proud to tell our property owners, if you vote for this, your taxes will still be going down.”
Gauging whether the district has broad community support, Barton said he believes they succeeded at spreading a positive message about the referendum, and he has yet to hear vocal opposition towards a new levy.
“Our community isn’t out giving us parades in the street or anything,” said Barton. “But I do think they have a high level of gratitude for the work that was done at the capitol to reduce their taxes.”
The most fruitful tactic Barton said the district encountered in the outreach process was the usefulness broadcasting the four public meetings on the referendum via Facebook live. Most public meetings that regard upcoming school elections only bring in a handful of people, said Barton, but each meeting got between 10 and 100 views.
Low voter turnout is Barton’s biggest concern, especially with only one question being on the ballot, he doesn’t want supporters of the schools to think the referendum will pass easily, and then not vote.