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COL Balance tax increase

School board faces a numbers challenge

The public outcry at a Truth-in-Taxation hearing over the Rochester School Board's tax increase proposal has been so loud that there is no way the board can go forward with its preliminarily approved tax increase of 31.86 percent.

The good news is that the school board had no intention to do so. Ever.

The preliminary figure was approved to accommodate a state law stating that school districts can pass only as much as a preliminarily approved figure. A school board can come down, but can't go up. As such, the board gave approval to the maximum figure allowed under state law. The final figure is guaranteed to be less.

The board also should not approve the much more moderate debated proposal of 18.52 percent. Even this figure is too high. Whether it is more than can be afforded or more than can be tolerated is fuzzy.

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To reduce the tax increase, the school board should put off some of the maintenance projects it has proposed.

It is important that the board approve work on Edison, the district's administration building. By all accounts it is a sick building that is causing health concerns for employees.

There is a political question the board must consider: How large an increase can the board approve while maintaining public support for future issues? For example, next year voters will be asked to extend three current operating levy overrides. It's possible that other investment and tax questions could be asked, too.

If the board approves a levy that most voters believe is too high, it risks alienating those voters. The repercussions could be vengeance at the polls. Anger voters now and risk defeat of crucial levy override extensions later.

A question greater than politics is how can a school board know how much tax is too much? When have people reached their limit, collectively as a district, and individually as voters?

To divine such an answer is tricky. It could come down to values. People might not be tapped out. They might believe schools are getting enough. It is far simpler just to look to the ballot box. The answer will be only yes or no, not why, but it's feedback. There is a recent example.

The school district is in the middle of a massive maintenance project for John Marshall High School and recently finished one at Mayo High School. Together, the pair cost more than $50 million, which was approved by the board without seeking voter approval.

Yet, on the heels of this decision was a school board election that returned three incumbent board members who ran unopposed. It was a clear sign that people approved of the board's big budget maintenance decision.

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This year the school board needs to do what it can to soften the tax hit to taxpayers. If not, next year's election might not have a positive outcome. The hint is in the loud and vocal outcry at this week's tax hearing.

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