SWEDEBORG, Mo. (Feb. 3, 2009) — Voters in the Swedeborg R-III School District go to the polls today to decide whether to raise the district’s property tax levy from $2.75 per $100 of assessed valuation to what state school officials consider to be an appropriate level of $3.43.
Voting takes place today until 7 p.m. at the Swedeborg school library.
In preparation for today’s vote, school board members called a town hall meeting on Jan. 26, one week before the election, that had to be cancelled due to snow. However, board members sponsored another town hall meeting Monday night with a question-and-answer period from the audience that ran more than two hours.
“The reason for our gathering this evening was to invite input from you guys,” board president Chris Black told the audience. “It ended up getting rolled into this evening, which is obviously the night before, but I think there’s been discussion amongst the community. Tonight isn’t the first time people have known about it.”
While board members said they had been working on the proposal since November and tried to notify the public via the news media with radio and newspaper announcements, some residents were upset by what they called late notice.
“I had not heard a thing until last Friday when somebody called me and said there’s a town hall meeting about a tax raise,” said area resident Howard Feldmeyer.
“Why did some people in Swedeborg get letters and others did not?” asked resident Sherry Strain. “That is uncalled for. Nobody came knocking on my door, nobody mailed me a letter, Chris. That is uncalled for and I want to know why. Are other people better than us?”
District Administrator Ryan Warnol said school officials went back through the last two years of voting records and sent an informational letter to anyone who had voted during that period.
“I’ve been here all the time. I’ve been voting in every election for the last 15 years here,” Feldmeyer said. “Changes have got to be made in this house up here.”
School officials offered to provide copies of people’s voting records and said any errors would be due to courthouse errors, not lack of effort by the school to notify likely voters.
While the proposed 36 percent increase in property taxes would make Swedeborg’s taxes much higher than almost any area school district, Warnol noted that at the November meeting when the tax levy was approved, board members unanimously agreed that the increase is needed so the Swedeborg district can get its full share, estimated at $20,000 per year, of $5 million in state aid for small schools.
“We want to take care of our students in the best way that we possibly can,” Warnol said. “You might be interested in knowing where our funding comes from and the track record of our funding.”
Warnol said there’s been a shift in how school revenue is generated, with less federal funding being received and a greater reliance on state funding. Local school property tax revenue generated only $123,000 out of a budget of about $700,000, he said.
Swedeborg, like most other Pulaski County school districts, doesn’t qualify for its full share of state funds because it has only the state-mandated minimum property tax levy of $2.75. Even though voters in some districts such as the Crocker R-II School District have approved higher tax levies to pay for special construction projects, no other area district comes close to the $3.43 minimum that’s required for a school district to get its full share of state school aid funds.
“This is the big kicker here: this $20,000 would have a huge impact for our district. The only way we can get this is to have a minimum levy for the state of $3.43,” Warnol said.
There are other problems with failure to meet state standards in Swedeborg as well, Warnol said. The Swedeborg library doesn’t meet state minimum standards because it doesn’t have the proper numbers and types of books; the additional revenue would buy enough books to solve that problem, he said.
“The biggest request that I have had this year has been for reading resources; that’s a pretty difficult thing to say ‘no’ to,” Warnol said.
Other proposed improvements include sending teachers to more training seminars and professional development, Warnol said, along with providing transportation for sports, speech and debate programs; meeting a new state requirement for exploratory seventh- and eighth-grade courses; increasing the number of students who can be served by pre-school and special education; and keeping and improving Swedeborg’s before- and after-school programs.
The preschool program is turning away applicants and the before- and after-school programs help many working parents, Warnol said.
“This is a great service to the community and the parents,” Warnol said. “When you have something like this, you don’t want to start something and then have it fail, just do it one or two years and then go back.”
Warnol said Swedeborg will also be required next year to increase teacher salaries.
“Right now we have the lowest salary that we possibly can have for teachers,” Warnol said. “The minimum salary is set at $24,000, so that’s what our base is. The state is requiring that next year we bump it up to $25,000, that’s going to be the law.”
The actual Swedeborg ballot language calls for a 99-cent increase to $3.74 per $100 of assessed valuation. However, members of school boards, city councils and other tax districts have the right to roll back tax levies approved by voters at their annual tax rate hearing, though that rarely happens and tax rate hearings usually have few people attending. Swedeborg voters have been asked to approve the 99-cent increase to $3.74 with the understanding that board members will roll it back each year to $3.43 each year. Since property taxes have to be rolled back each year if property value increases exceed the inflation rate, board members have said getting voter approval for a higher tax levy with the understanding the board will roll it back each year is the only way to make sure Swedeborg gets its share of state aid.
Black said he wanted to avoid “scare tactics” and avoid the impression that school board members would recommend closing the school district if the tax levy doesn’t pass.
“If the levy doesn’t pass, we’re going to continue to operate as tight as we have to, to make things function,” Black said. “If it passes we’re going to be the best stewards we can with the money; if it doesn’t pass, we’re going to be the best stewards we can with the money that’s there.”
Several board members questioned the wisdom of spending more than $11,000 to buy a house next to the school that was in poor condition. However, Warnol and Black said buying the property eliminated a potential safety hazard caused by problem tenants next to the school and also provided expansion opportunities for the district.
“We weren’t comfortable with some of the people who were living there at some times, being this close to the school,” Black said. “Optimistically, with all the building that is going on around Waynesville, soon enough we thought surely it’s going to cross the river and hit Swedeborg eventually, and if it does, what are we going to do for room?”
Warnol said the house purchase “didn’t have any impact” on the district’s finances.
“It’s a great purchase because of securing that one property at a good reasonable price; it also secured safety for the schools and the kids; I believe there were some situations that occurred that were downright dangerous next to the school,” Warnol said. “I’ve heard the comment made that we bought a termite-infested building. I’d have to say that after viewing that property from coming in, that was a good thing to do to clean that thing up. I mean, it was just bad, and I feel a lot better driving by knowing that thing is gone now.”
Another building on the property could be used to provide indoor shelter for school equipment, Warnol said, since it has a good concrete floor even though it needs a new roof.
Resident Ike Bonebrake, who now teaches in Rolla but formerly taught in Swedeborg, said if Swedeborg school officials hope to see new homes come to the district, they need to keep taxes low.
“The first thing they look at is taxes. They will not build if the taxes are too high,” Bonebrake said. “A new home today, bottom line, is $125,000 … that’s why you see growth in Waynesville, Richland, Crocker, and not coming here.”
Black and Warnol noted that Swedeborg’s tax rate is already as low as or lower than neighboring districts.
Some residents asked how long they thought Swedeborg could survive as a small district. Both Black and Warnol said they’re optimistic about the future for small schools due the amount of individual attention given to students.
“(Better students) would probably succeed in whatever school they were in. But if you take a kid who is challenged a little bit, the attention you can get here is good,” Black said.
Black rebutted arguments that people don’t know what the Swedeborg board members are doing, and noted that area print and broadcast media have extensively covered the decisions of the Swedeborg school board.
“If I heard a rumor in this town today, I’d bet by Wednesday, three-fourths of the county would know about it,” Black said.
Strain said many of the school board’s proposals for building repairs were needed, but should be done for free. She also said the board needs to use students and board members to go door-to-door with flyers rather than relying on media.
“The roof on the library, yes, I agree, put it on there,” Strain said. “When (a former board member) was on the board, they walked door-to-door telling people when something was going to happen. When my boys were in this school, we did all kinds of stuff for this school. You would get volunteers to come down here if you would just ask. You don’t get the word out.”
Black said it’s not fair to expect residents who no longer have children in school to be donating their time.
“If you ask, you’ll get more help than what you think,” Strain said.
Responding to comments that the timing of the vote during a recession is bad and that board members hadn’t asked for help from residents, Black said that’s what board members are doing by asking for a tax vote.
“Since November when we started talking, the economy has gotten a lot worse,” Black said. “We’re just saying, ‘Hey, we think there’s a need, are you guys ready to support it now or never?’ If we don’t ask, we’ll never get it if we don’t ask. We’re just throwing it out to the taxpayers, and saying, ‘Hey, maybe the timing is wrong.’ … That’s why it’s a vote of the people.”
Black and other board members said they would consider submitting the proposal again if it’s voted down but the economy improved and if they believed residents would support a future tax increase.
“I think we’ve got one of the finest schools that I’ve ever been around. Yeah, we’ve got problems, but what doesn’t have problems right now with the economy the way it is? You’ve got some good points there, real good,” said board member Wayne King. “Maybe it is the wrong time. But you’re the voters. If you feel it’s the wrong time, you’ve got the vote.”
Other concerns raised by residents included the use of large school buses to transport only a few students and some people who are paying taxes and sending students to the wrong school district. Board members said they decided many years ago to buy larger buses since there’s little trade-in market for the smaller buses, and said even though some Swedeborg parents are sending their students to other districts, some parents in neighboring districts are also choosing to send their students to Swedeborg. Black said after reviewing the issues, it’s “a wash” on the school attendance problem and officials of the affected districts have decided not to strictly enforce rules.
Some residents also noted that many people who have farms and own property in the Swedeborg district don’t live in the Swedeborg district and can’t vote, and questioned whether the tax rolls produced by the county assessor’s office correctly follow school district lines.
In other business Monday night:
• Board members voted to amend the school calendar to accommodate four snow days. The district had already used a planned Jan. 19 snow day and additional make-up class days will be held on Feb. 16, May 19 (which was originally to be only a half-day of classes), May 20 and 21, and a half-day on May 22. Board members amended that proposal by deciding to hold classes all day instead of a half-day on Feb. 6, and not hold a half-day of classes on May 22.
Ballot language of 'Proposition A'
Shall the Board of Education of Swedeborg Reorganized School District No. R-III of Pulaski County, Missouri, be authorized to increase the operating tax levy by ninety-nine cents (99 cents) per one hundred dollars of assessed valuation in order to ensure maximum state funding is received for meeting educational needs?
If this question is approved, the adjusted operating levy of the District is estimated to be $3.43 per one hundred dollars of assessed valuation. Currently the operating levy is $2.75 and the actual real impact is estimated to be only sixty-eight cents to meet the state funding requirements.