April 28, 2014

Carroll residents' reluctance to support an instructional support levy is putting the community's students at a roughly 8 percent disadvantage, said Rob Cordes, superintendent of the Carroll Community School District during a board meeting Monday night.

In fall of 2014, there will be 338 school districts in the state of Iowa. The Carroll district is one of only nine in the state - and the only district in a 100-mile radius, added board president Kim Tiefenthaler - that does not have this levy.

Faced with a state Legislature that continually underfunds education - the Iowa per-pupil funding is $1,600 less than the national average, said Cordes - board members agreed that an instructional support levy, which could generate an additional $900,000 for the 2015-16 school year, is something that must be considered.

"It's the only option there if we want to put money in the classroom," said business manager Gary Bengtson.

A school's budget is divided between "bricks and mortar" expenditures and "teaching and learning" expenditures, explained Cordes. While the district may have plenty of money to fund its ongoing construction projects, this money comes from specific accounts and levies - such as physical plant and equipment or local-option sales tax - and cannot legally be moved into a different account to support the general fund, about 80 percent of which is used to pay salaries.

As a result, the district has been working this year to encourage early retirement and eliminate some positions to reduce the amount of cuts school board members will need to make to educational programs.

An instructional support levy can fund up to 10 percent of the regular program district cost as determined by the state education funding formula. It can be funded solely by property tax or by a combination of property tax and income surtax, so that Carroll residents who do not own property would still contribute to the pool of funds.

Based on a levy funding the full 10 percent of the cost, half by property tax and half by a 3 percent income surtax, the property-tax rate in the district would increase 41 cents per $1,000 valuation - generating just shy of $380,000 - while income surtax would fund about $530,000. If an instructional levy was funded entirely by property tax, the rate would increase by 99 cents per $1,000 of valuation.

If a 50-50 instructional support levy was passed for 2015-16, the total property-tax rate would be $10.15 per $1,000 of valuation - still less than the $10.66 per $1,000 of valuation residents paid last year, said Cordes.

"It's not like we're putting a burden on the taxpayers," said Tiefenthaler. "We've been awfully good in what we've done and lowered the tax rate several years."

Discussion of implementing an instructional support levy is not new. In 2006, the school board established an instructional support levy for the board-maximum span of five years, but the levy was crushed in a reverse referendum. In 2008, the board placed the levy on the ballot for its maximum voter-approved term of 10 years. Again it was rejected by large margins.

The earliest the board could place a levy on the ballot this year is Sept. 9, which would allow it to try again in February 2015 if the levy failed the first time - a district must wait at least six months between attempts.

Cordes said the district tried to hold forums to explain school funding during its last attempt to pass an instructional support levy, but community residents did not attend the meetings. The Heartland Area Education Agency has offered assistance in connecting the district with voters, for which many more platforms exist today than seven years ago, Cordes acknowledged.

But neither of those efforts will change one reality, said Cordes - if voters between the ages of 24 and 44 don't vote, the levy doesn't stand a chance.