The Pine River-Backus School Board approved a $1,192,769.48 levy at its Dec. 17 regular meeting.
This is $246,621 (26.07 percent) more than the last certified levy. Business Manager Jolene Bengtson said this number is so large because the board under-levied for 2013.
“In 2013, we cut revenue from nearly all of the general levy categories. Levying the maximum this year means you are covering the cut from last year as well as new revenue from this year,” Bengtson said.
This certification came after mixed comments by residents in the audience.
“I would support the tax levy for your approval. There are a lot of challenges coming to our education and our teachers. Increases in our costs are probably going to be expected, also in our communities and our homes. I believe staying where we are is a step backwards, and I think of it as investing in research and development as we put money into our education system,” said Bonnie Lomen.
“I have a salon on Main Street and I’m against the tax increase because it affects me and my rent goes up,” said Rachel Sawyer, owner of Rachel’s Hair and Tanning Studio. “It cuts into Main Street businesses and we all know how hard it is to keep businesses open on Main Street and I think this will affect our community more.”
The biggest changes to this year’s levy include a $300 per pupil, board-approved operating referendum and a Student Achievement or General Education levy. Bengtson told the board that if they under-levied in either category, the school would receive less state-contributed funds as well.
“The state has decided that, to make it easier on smaller districts who can’t pass a big referendum. To have access to the same amount of money they have made it so instead of voter approval, the school board can go through and say, ‘We want to certify up to $300 per pupil unit,’” Bengtson said. “What that ends up being is roughly $300,000, but the state has equalized it. So the state will pay 43 percent of it, and the levy will pay 57 percent of it. So by saying no to one chunk you also say no to the other chunk of money.”
Board member Jim Coffland asked why they weren’t being given options other than certifying the maximum levy.
“I always like options, because there’s always options to everything. Whether they’re good options or whether they’re bad options, at least I would have some options here. I don’t have any options here, I have max,” Coffland said.
Bengtson said the board had the option of approving any amount it wanted, but she had only been asked to create presentations for the maximum levy and the maximum levy minus funding for tree growth, which would reduce the levy increase to 24.8 percent and would not result in losing state funding.
“If you don’t want to levy for the max, then you need to give us a dollar amount that you want to levy for,” said Superintendent Cathy Bettino.
Board member Chris Cunningham said the board had been discussing the levy for months, and if Coffland had wanted to see presentations of the levy at lesser amounts he should have requested it then. He also said the board needed the levy to be certified by Dec. 30.
“We should have started at that time, not at the ninth hour of the decision-making progress,” Cunningham said.
No alternative amount was suggested during the meeting.
Barb Mann of Backus asked how the district would use the money raised by the levy increase. Bengtson said the district’s general fund accounts for approximately 77 percent of expenses and they are not limited in what they can be applied to. She said the board priorities in the past have been for maintaining small class sizes, maintaining high school electives and college courses, and updating school buses and bus safety equipment.
Board members Cunningham, Sandra Poferl and Garney Gaffey have all indicated these as high priorities in this or past board meetings.
Bengtson explained the levy could be used to avoid problems the school faced during the past school year.
“The under-levy last year put a big dent in the programming around here. We cut the New Beginnings program completely. We got rid of a few administrative positions. We got rid of elementary P.E. and only got half of it back this year. Last year was painful, so this year is trying to fill the holes,” Bengtson said.
Cunningham said the board was still looking at making cuts in the coming year as a result of under-levying for 2013. It was suggested that the board should not be giving any pay increases if they are looking at making cuts.
Mann asked if she correctly understood that the school hired a physical education teacher in the middle of the first semester because of pressure put on the school board by the public. She was told public pressure did make the board and administration recommend filling additional positions during the semester even though it resulted in deficit spending.
“The reason I wanted to bring that up is, when people raise the concern about tax increases regarding education, on the other hand the community, the public, the parents are also demanding certain services educationally and that these are necessary and required and important for the well being of our kids’ education, but you can’t have it both ways,” Mann said.
The levy passed with school board members Katy Botz and Coffland in opposition. Cunningham attended the meeting remotely through webcam.
In other business Dec. 17, the board:
• Approved the 2013-15 at-will employee letters of assignment for the ALC director, activities director, bus drivers, business manager, community asset developer, community education director/testing coordinator, dean of students, director of buildings and grounds, food services director, food services employees, human resource director, nurse, technology support specialists, transportation director, transportation dispatcher, van drivers, youth and family services workers. These were each approved independently, allowing board members the opportunity to discuss each of them.
• Heard from Karl Flier, director of buildings and grounds, following a fire marshal inspection of the school. The school received no write ups, something he said is uncommon.
• Learned from elementary Principal Rick Aulie that 97 percent of elementary students at PR-B have 0-2 minor referrals, meaning they spend more time in class and less outside of class due to discipline.
• Learned Bettino is working with other districts in the center of the state in applying for $7 million in grants to develop career and college readiness courses.