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Board talks budget

Our view: Pay heed to operations levy

It’s a bit of a head-scratcher that the Glencoe-Silver Lake School Board recently rejected its own administrative staff recommendations in dealing with its elementary school staffing. It had an opportunity, with a retirement, to shift staff to meet enrollment needs and save money at the same time.
The board opted to not do that, instead keeping staffing at current levels even though the enrollment numbers did not indicate the need.
In the past, the School Board’s policy has been to keep primary grades (pre-K through grade 2) at about 20 pupils per class if possible. The class sizes in grades 3-6 were often left at 25 to 30 per class because the older students had fewer needs than the younger ones.
The School Board’s recent decision to keep a fifth section of fifth graders despite having just over 100 students, makes that about 20 students per class. Several years earlier there were over 130 fifth graders in four sections, and that worked fine.
It appears emotion got in the way of common sense.
The board’s decision sets a precedent, which may open a can of worms in the future.
While the School Board continues to debate budgetary issues, like possible budget cuts, there is another issue few district residents have been hearing about. It’s the need to renew the current operations levy, which expires in June 2020. If not, GSL would lose nearly $1.8 million from its budget. That failure would guarantee a new, and lot more severe round of staff and budget cuts in the future.
We have been down this road before and did not like it. We would not like it now either. The current debate over whether to keep five sections of fifth graders seems small potatoes by comparison.
While 2020 seems like a long way away, it is not. If you consider GSL’s past history with referendums, it is difficult to pass one in this school district. For example, the last building bond referendum took several attempts and several years before passing.
But an operations levy referendum is different. It does not involve building anything, rather it involves funds needed to operate what is already in place, including staffing, building operations, etc. In other words, it pays for the day-to-day needs of the school system.
Currently, the operations levy in place amounts to about $860 per pupil unit. The district currently has an average of 1,580 pupil units. That equals about $1.8 million in additional funds to help the district operate each year.
Traditionally, the district has passed operations referendums for five years, but the last referendum in 2013 was for seven years. Most districts run operation levies for 10 years so they do not have to go back to property taxpayers so often.
Michelle Sander, district financial director, said the referendum is often held a year early in case its fails on the first try. Then a second attempt can be made before the operation levy expires.
So the new operations levy referendum is likely to be on this November’s school board ballot. That decision needs to be made by Aug. 24, Sander said. She added there is a lot at stake in the potential loss of state aid and local levy funding, “so it’s not something to mess with.”
The debate by the school board then is what to ask for: The same amount; more because of its deficit spending of recent years; or to keep it as is and just add in for the inflationary factor.
In the past, ballot language has been an issue. The state requires the district to claim on the ballot that this will increase property taxes. If the district is simply asking to extend what is already in place, then the required disclaimer is not needed.
The school board will further discuss the referendum and its possible impacts. Its August board meeting will be a crucial time to make that decision.
— R.G.