September 18, 2013

School board proposes 13.9 percent mill levy increase

By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

For all intents and purposes, the McKenzie County Public School District No. 1 school board has finalized its 2013-14 school budget. All that is left is the dotting of a couple Is and the crossing of a few Ts.
But it is the Ts, namely taxes in the form of a mill levy increase, that has become the major hurdle facing the school board in finalizing its new $13.6 million budget.
“The biggest question that is facing the school district board is how many mills we want or need,” states Steve Holen, district superintendent. “Until we can determine the needed mill levy, the budget can’t be finalized. It is truly the missing piece.”
According to Holen, the process of determining the school district’s mill levy has been a relatively simple process in the past. But during the last legislative session, the state not only changed the funding formula that provides funding for school districts, it also dramatically lowered taxes for property owners across the state.
“We are now finding ourselves in the position where our current mill levy of 53.15 mills is not going to provide the district with enough money to meet the needs we face as a growing school district,” states Holen. “We’ve had to add a lot of new staff. Plus we have to have money to begin paying off the bond on the elementary school addition and have money for the purchase of land to build a new building on.”
And to add even more to the board’s decision on how large a mill levy increase to ask the district’s taxpayers to bare is the state’s one-time provision that allows all of the state’s school districts to increase their mill levies above the 12 percent threshold.
“Basically, the state’s funding formula going forward is based on every school district having a mill levy of 60 mills,” states Holen. “We have to at least get to that minimum, and then decide if we need to go above that to get to our balanced budget.”
According to Holen, the district’s new budget is predicated on a 13.91 percent mill levy increase, which would get the district to the 60 mill levy level.
“We don’t like the increase,” states Holen. “But we have to do it. The state Legislature bought the mills down and now we’re going to have to increase the mills.”
This past week, the district began the process of sending out 1,400 letters to school district patrons notifying them of the proposed mill levy increase. In addition, the school district will be holding a public hearing at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 1 in the district’s board room to take public comment on the mill levy increase.
“We know it’s going to be an increase in taxes for school district patrons,” states Holen. “But it is something that we’ve got to do.”
According to Holen, the mill levy will provide an additional $4 million to the district’s general fund.
“It is important to remember that the bulk of the tax increase is being paid by the utilities, primarily the new pipelines in the school district,” states Holen. “But every property owner is going to be impacted.”
While Holen acknowledges that the $4 million budget increase may seem large to some district patrons, in reality it isn’t.
“We are not going to be flush with cash under this new budget,” states Holen. “It is going to provide us with a balanced budget for the first time in many years. But it is only going to provide us with a 15.8 percent carryover, which is very, very low.”
During the school board’s meeting on Monday, Sept. 9, Holen also told the board that the district’s enrollment this year is holding very steady at 1,030 students.
“We are seeing our enrollment numbers growing in spite of the lack of housing in the area,” stated Holen.  “We’re not even beginning to dent the housing issue.”
However, according to Holen, the number of kindergarten students in the district is what is capturing all of the attention.
“Our kindergarten numbers fall right between what Wahpeton and Devils Lake have,” stated Holen.
During Monday night’s meeting, the board also approved spending $15,000 for a portable classroom to house the elementary school’s computer lab to make room for a fifth kindergarten classroom.