Arcadia schools to ask voters for $750k referendum in April

The Arcadia School District will go to referendum this spring asking for help from taxpayers and could do so without raising the tax rate. 

A $750,000 nonrecurring operational referendum ask will face voters at the polls in April after a 5-2 vote from the Arcadia school board last week.

If approved, the extra dollars would be available to the district for three years, beginning in 2023-24 and ending with the 2025-26 school year. The resident tax rate would not be affected by the request because the district has been levying more in taxes the last few years to prepay debt.

Board member Rodney Walters applauded the way the district has been safe with money, but he thinks there isn’t much more they can do without referendum help.

“We’ve been talking about an operational referendum as a topic for less than three years. I think (superintendent) Lance (Bagstad) and team have done a good job with the budget and trying to take it and stretch it as far as we can. I think we have to do something.”

The district could spend up to $2.3 million combined in referendum and defeasance payments without raising the tax rate from the current $10.70.

Money would be used to increase staff salaries as well as pay for equipment such as a new bus and day to day facility maintenance costs.

The $750,000 was based on estimates obtained by the district for possible uses, including:

• $675,000 for an eight percent salary increase for all staff.

• $120,000 for a new school bus.

• $80-90,000 to cover insurance increase.

• $150,000 to cover inflation.

None of these areas or numbers are definite and were for planning purposes. The school will further investigate and explain to voters which areas they hope to spend the money on—and how much on each area—now that a referendum will certainly be on the ballot.

Unknowns with the state’s biennium budget clouds certainties for where the district will sit financially, too. The state Department of Public Instruction has asked the governor for more money and could get a bump, Bagstad said Monday.

That is important for voters, Bagstad said, because the district does not have to levy the full amount approved if the state budget is kinder to schools than they expect.

Board members split 

on referendum

Board members were split on the ask, with Diana Tempski and Dana Conrad voting against the referendum. They both felt $750,000 is too much money at a time when the economy is down.

Conrad asked if there were areas the district could cut costs to save money, to which Bagstad said the district has made 10-15 percent cuts to areas of the budget, adding that transportation is tight and classroom budgets are “bare bones” right now.

Conrad said with financial assistance programs from COVID beginning to fade, people could be struggling more than ever.

“I guess when I see the number $500,000, I was a little leery. People are struggling right now in the community. 750? I have a hard time with that,” Conrad said.

Tempski agreed.

“I think we need to be strategic and thoughtful,” Tempski said. “Is there a greater chance of it passing if it’s under 750? As a taxpayer how would I vote? 750 is three quarters of a million.”

Walters said the district needs to be smart with information sharing about the referendum. 

The district will not be increasing taxes thanks to their defeasance if the referendum passes, and that should be part of their messaging, he said.

“It’s all in how you tell the story, right,” asked Walters. “Because 750 or 500, the levy could remain the same or even still go down.”

Opting to ask for a lesser amount than $750,000 could have caused a problem, board president Paul Servais said, because the district would hate to have to go back to voters in a few years with an additional referendum ask on top of this one should it pass and not be enough.

“It’s a double-edged sword. It’s hard to put that number where it should be,” Servais said.

Randy Nilsestuen said inflation is something no one can control, and the school board vice president thinks having the defeasance piece is important for the equation in Arcadia. 

He supported the $750,000 number.

“I guess I’m leaning toward the 750 with A. Hoping we don’t have to spend it all and B. We have wiggle room on the mill rate,” he said. “I understand. I look at my tax bill and it’s gone up too, but there’s no way as a citizen or as a school board member that I can control the fair market value. If that goes up, I’m gonna pay more taxes.”

 

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