BEMIDJI -- The Bemidji School Board on Monday approved the upcoming year's tax levy and created a subcommittee to explore establishing an operating referendum to help bolster its finances.
The board members discussed the need to put a referendum before the voters, which would increase property taxes to help pay for the district’s needs. The subcommittee will include board members Jeff Lind, Ann Long Voelkner, Jeff Haack, as well as Superintendent Tim Lutz and Director of Business Services Chris Leinen.
The district already has a referendum, which is set to expire in 2026. The current referendum provides $180 per student. Currently, the subcommittee hasn’t made any decisions such as how much funding the additional referendum would bring in if it were approved by voters.
“We have that in place,” Leinen said about the existing referendum. “However, we will need to consider additional funds due to the fact that inflation has eaten up our ability to operate with what the legislature has put in front of us.”
Although they could host a vote on the referendum on a number of dates, Leinen said the district historically has held it on the same day as the general election, which is in November 2020. In that case, the committee would need to have the language for the ballot ready by Aug. 21, 2020. However, the subcommittee has not made any decisions yet as to whether or not they will have the referendum question during the general election.
School Board members also unanimously approved the tax levy at $10.6 million. That is the levy that will be paid in 2020 and marked as revenue for the 2020-21 school year. The school board approved a levy limitation back in September. During Monday's meeting, the board members could not approve anything above that levy limitation except under a few circumstances.
The levy decreased nearly $400,000 from what it was last year, representing roughly a 3.6% drop.
The change was due to a couple of reasons. One is that the school district is no longer renting space from the county for its preschool program. The reshuffling of schools caused by the opening of Gene Dillon Elementary essentially allowed the preschoolers to move into Paul Bunyan Elementary.
Another reason for the decrease is because of the timing of the county’s debt. Leinen said the bond for the high school has been paid off.
Ultimately, the levy is a relatively small part of the district’s overall budget. While the district may levy more than $10 million from taxpayers, it also receives upward of $54 million in state aid, along with revenue from a number of other sources. Its total operating budget is roughly $72 million.
Leinen also clarified that student enrollment is the main driver behind revenue for the school district. The highest peak of enrollment was in 1996 with 5,614 students. The lowest number of students was 4,600 in 2006. The current average daily attendance is 5,045.
Because enrollment is the main factor in the district's revenue, there is not a direct relationship between the district's revenue and property valuations. For example, even if property valuations increase, the school district won't get additional revenue as a result of that.
"We receive more money if we have more students; we don't receive more money if the values go up," Leinen said. That's a distinguishing characteristic between us and the city and the county."