School district asks voters to approve operating referendum

Mike Milbrandt
Voters are being asked to approve two questions on this year's Montevideo School District operating referendum. If approved, the money would be used for technology and the expansion of course opportunities for students.

The Montevideo School District is asking voters to approve an operating referendum. According to Dr. Luther Heller, Montevideo Schools Superintendent, the last operating referendum was passed nine years ago and is set to expire following the end of the 2020-2021 school year.

“The operating referendum which was passed nine years ago was a $900 per pupil unit referendum, and over the course of the past few years, $724 of that per pupil unit was moved to be in the board approved budget,” said Heller.

Like the referendum from nine years ago, the current referendum contains two questions. Heller said: “When we passed the last referendum, it was in the form of two questions. The $900 per pupil question was geared toward replacing the referendum that was existing at the time in order to maintain our operations. The other portion of that, which was about $154, was partially used for technology. That is the part which we are going back to the voters to renew.“

Money budgeted for technology is in place for this year and next year. “If we don’t get that replaced,” said Heller, “then what we’ve been spending that money on kind of goes away. The technology money from the previous referendum directly impacted kids in classrooms.”

Technology money from the referendum nine years ago allowed the purchase of chromebooks for every student in the district, which turned out to be a very good thing.

As mentioned, this year’s referendum also asks voters to approve two questions, and the first question is tied into the second one. Heller said: “The first question, for the $154.76, is entirely for technology. That would extend what is in place now. There is no tax increase with this question; it simply continues the existing referendum. We are asking voters to approve the first question for an additional nine years.”

The second question asks voters to approve an additional $303.24 per pupil unit. “The second question is specified for program expansion and program development. What we are really looking at there is having some money available so we can start expanding our curriculum into other areas.” said Heller.

According to Heller, the district is looking into offering students more opportunities in career and technical education, as well as adding more exploratory programs at the middle school.

The total amount of both questions on this year’s referendum is $460, and there is a reason for that. “The way that the State of Minnesota funds operating referendums, the First Tier, the first $460, is equalized with state aid at 56 percent. So of the money we are asking for, 56 percent of that would come in the form of state aid, and 44 percent would be paid by our taxpayers,” said Heller.

Taxpayers in the case of this operating referendum are businesses and home owners. Within the agricultural community, the levy would only be applied to the house, the garage, and one acre of land. “This makes the agricultural tax portion comparable to the residential tax portion,” said Heller. “It is not applied to ag production; that is where an operating referendum differs from a bond referendum.”

The state equalization decreases dramatically at the Second Tier level. “When you get above the $460 level, that is equalized at a much lower rate. most districts don’t qualify on the Tier 2 level; if we were above that, the rate of equalization would only be 14 percent. I think the real key is that over half of this referendum would be paid through state aid,” Heller said.

The median home in Montevideo is valued at $110,000, and according to a tax table sent by the district to all district residents, owners of homes valued between $100,000 and $125,000 would see a property tax increase of $85 to $118.

“When you go for an operating referendum, the first argument that you hear against it so many times is that you just want to pay your teachers,” said Heller. “It is true that most of our revenue goes into salaries, because we are a very service intensive organization. We spend more on putting teachers in front of kids than we spend on buying computers. It’s true that 84 percent of our budget goes into staffing, but on this particular referendum, that money will directly impact kids in our classrooms. The money is strictly geared toward our technology initiative.”

Early voting has been underway for some time now, and the General Election will be held on Tuesday, November 3.