By Katie Dahlstrom
Herald Staff Writer
Caught between a goal to lower taxes and the uncertainty of state funding, Clinton School Board members are grappling with a conditional $17 levy for next fiscal year.
During the board’s budget workshop on Wednesday, Chief Financial Officer Jan Culbertson suggested publishing the district’s fiscal year 2014 budget with the $17 levy with the stipulation that it be lowered once there is clear direction from the Iowa Legislature on allowable growth.
By law, the state legislature is required to pass allowable growth (the increase in funding per student) within the first 30 days of the session. Setting allowable growth for the next two years is being held up by Gov. Terry Branstad’s education reform package. So far, the House has passed a 2 percent allowable growth and education reform. The Senate has approved a 4 percent rate, but is still working with education reform. In the meantime, school districts such as Clinton struggle as they prepare their budgets to be certified by April 15.
The increase from a $16.63 levy is based on the uncertainty of allowable growth but also the district’s $893,843 special education deficit. Last year, the Clinton School District had to pay for 93 special education students in other districts. Some of these students cost the district upwards of $20,000. Without a levy to make up for that deficit, the levy would be $16.04.
Despite the stipulation that the levy be lowered once state funding becomes clear, board members struggled with increase.
“With the sewer and the garbage and everything else, and they’re talking water going up another 10 percent, I don’t feel good about setting it at $17,” Board member Jack Wenzel said.
Also unclear for the district is the valuation of area industries, which would carry additional impact. Culbertson said while the levy can be lowered once it is published, it can’t be raised.
“I think board members have an obligation to look at what’s best for the school district. If you think that we can cut $190,000 out because of our reduced enrollment and then turn around and cut another $350,000 to keep the tax rate the same, that’s your decision. But I think in the long run you will regret tying yourself to that number until you know what all the numbers from the state are,” Culbertson said.
The statement board members made four years ago when the levy was moved from $15.23 to $17.13 also stuck out to some board members as they discussed the levy rate they would like to publish.
“At that point you didn’t have 93 kids that you were paying tuitions on. We didn’t have all of the technologies that we’re required to do. You didn’t know you were going to be losing 100 and some kids over those years. There’s a lot of things that have changed between those times,” Culbertson said.
Board member Devin Guillory favored tentatively publishing the levy at $17 until all the financial pieces are known.
“It’s a strategy to protect the programs, revenues, the assets of the district. That’s all it is. In the end when you have all your information, then you make a decision. It’s like saying we’re not going to let it go up no matter what happens.’ Well, let’s find out what’s going to happen and then make an educated or an informed decision.”
School board members will decide what levy rate to publish during the regular board meeting on Monday. A public hearing on the budget will be held March 25.