Our View: Levy decision can help maintain trust
When the Rochester School Board asked residents to increase the tax levy in November, the request sought just enough to keep the status quo. It didn't seek funding for additional programs or changes in the district.
Now, a growing property tax base — by $400 million in value — means there's extra money on the table. It's enough to lower an estimated $183 tax increase on a $200,000 home to about $136.
As a result, district staff presented the school board with two options during this week's truth-in-taxation meeting. The first option would bring in the funding sought by the November referendum — about $9.6 million — to maintain the status quo. The second option would maintain the $182 tax increase as advertised and provide the district with an extra $2.5 million.
We're glad to see district staff brought both options to the table, keeping in mind the various numbers and commitments provided to district residents who narrowly authorized the levy override. At the same time, we note district Superintendent Michael Muñoz urged caution when pondering the options.
He suggested sticking with the lower tax, which would give the board what it sought for next year's budget. The added tax potential would be available in the future. "Next year, you could come back and decide how much of that you want to capture," he told the board Tuesday.
It's a wise suggestion. First, it keeps the promises made during the referendum campaign. But more importantly, it offers school board members and district officials a chance to prove they are good stewards of tax funds.
Debates leading up to the referendum vote and responses to other local tax increases continue to show area taxpayers remain gun-shy in the wake of the recent economic downturn. While the expanding property values are among the signs that the economy is rebounding, many people require additional assurances, which makes frugality on the board that much more important.
We're not saying the board should never be able to expand the district's tax revenue. It should simply hold fast for the upcoming year.
As Muñoz and others repeatedly noted Tuesday, that year will give the board and district officials an opportunity to seek input from the community and define their goals. It also will provide the district the chance to better communicate those goals and make sure taxpayers know their money is being well spent.
As Tuesday's discussion revealed, the district has several ways it could spend additional revenue to improve the local educational landscape. Reduced class sizes, alternate schedules and adjusting school start times were among potential changes discussed. "There are several different things we can look at," Board Member Anne Becker noted.
All are worthy efforts and should be considered as ways to enhance our schools and continue efforts to reduce the existing achievement gaps. However, none should be rushed into without proper study and consideration.
It's good to see Muñoz and the school board appear to realize that is the case. Rather than looking at the newfound flexibility in the available tax levy as a blank check, they are considering it to be a potential cushion to help address future needs, whether from unfunded state mandates or efforts to provide future programs needed in the district.
We encourage them to follow through with that stance as they finalize the tax levy during Tuesday's regular school board meeting.
As district resident Mark Fredrickson noted during the truth-in-taxation hearing: "If you want to maintain trust with taxpayers, I think you should go for option one."