Referendum concerns addressed
I-S school officials explain costs, needs
By Jane Myhra
The Iola-Scandinavia School District hosted a referendum meeting Monday, Oct. 24.
The I-S School District will present two referendum questions on the Nov. 8 ballot.
The first question asks voters to approve general obligation bonds in an amount not to exceed $2 million to fund school improvements.
The proposed projects include fixing leaking roofs, replacing outdated boilers, repairing parking lots and upgrading playgrounds.
The second question asks voters to authorize the I-S School District to exceed the revenue limit by $600,000 for the 2016-17 school year, by $650,000 for the 2017-18 school year, by $800,000 for the 2018-19 school year, by $950,000 for the 2019-20 school year and by $1.6 million for the 2020-21 school year.
This non-recurring referendum will allow the school district to maintain educational programming, student opportunities and operations.
If both questions are approved by electors on Nov. 8, the mill rate is projected to increase to $11.22. The tax increase averages to $7.30 per month on a property valued at $100,000.
For some taxpayers, this was the first referendum meeting they had attended.
“It is way too much money,” Memoree Rowell, of Iola, said before the meeting. “I want to know where the money is going.”
Her question was answered by District Administrator David Dyb.
“All of the referendum money stays right here,” Dyb said. “Every dollar is reinvested in our children.”
Dyb said the I-S School District has always been a low spending district.
“This district spends $1,000 less per student than the state average,” he said. “That amounts to about $700,000 per year less than the state average.”
Why hasn’t the school district saved up money for capital projects?
Up until three years ago, school districts were not allowed to have a capital projects fund. Now, according to Dyb, there isn’t enough extra money to put into a capital projects fund.
“Budgets are shrinking and funds are less available,” he said.
Will the referendum provide pay increases to staff?
“The referendum does not have pay increases built into it,” said Business Manager Sarah Thiel. “The referendum will maintain the current staffing levels. We are not going to ask the local taxpayers for money to give pay increases.”
“The best way to keep quality educators is to vote ‘yes’ on the referendum questions,” said Travis Bassett, who teaches social studies at the I-S Middle/High School. “When a community gets behind us and supports a referendum, it sends a huge message to the teachers.”
Thiel said the referendums will fund capital projects and maintain the high quality education currently provided by the school district.
She explained that the state set revenue limits for schools starting in 1993. Since then, rural school districts have been hit the hardest.
Without the referendums, Thiel said the I-S School District faces a $500,000 deficit for the 2016-17 school year and a $795,000 deficit in 2017-18.
“We have tightened our belts; we have made adjustments,” she said. “Unfortunately we cannot make any more cuts without changing how we look and how we operate.
“A $500,000 cut will greatly impact our school district.”
What happens after five years?
“This (referendum) addresses the problem for the next five years,” Thiel said. “Unless something happens at the state level regarding funding for public schools we may have to ask the community for continued support. We’re not sure what that means or how that looks at this point.”
She noted that the nonrecurring second questions is an “up to” amount.
“The I-S School Board has made a commitment to only levy what is needed,” she said. “Our board has been conservative.”
“We are not asking to build new facilities, only to maintain what we have,” Dyb said.
How can the costs be justified to home owners who are already living on a tight budget?
“The school district draws people to this area,” said school board president Kristin Hoyord. “People come here because of the excellent education our schools provide.”
“If the school district starts to fail, it’s harder to sell houses, and property values go down,” Thiel said.
“If we don’t have a strong school, property taxes will go up,” said Mark Sether, a member of the district’s Finance Committee.
What happens if the referendum questions fail?
“We have made cuts for the last six years and we can’t afford to keep doing this,” Thiel said. “About 80 percent of the budget is salary and benefits, so this is where cuts will be made.”
“We have no more to cut at the middle school and high school, which means staff cuts would occur at the elementary level,” Hoyord said.
What can be done about decreasing enrollment?
“That is a statewide issue,” Dyb said. “Our student decline is less than the state average for our size of school.”
He said the 2016-17 enrollment numbers are higher than was expected. Prior to September, enrollment was estimated to decrease by nine; instead, enrollment increased by 17.
“We are moving in the right direction,” Thiel said.
Wouldn’t the $400,000 cost of paving a parking lot be better used elsewhere?
“Our parking lots have been repaved and repaved. We have been patching for the past 30 years,” Hoyord said.
“Safety is a priority,” Dyb said. “There are safety issues with our parking lots and playgrounds. We are focusing on safety, not aesthetics.”
Former board president Charlie Wasrud said the district has about seven maintenance issues to address immediately.
“We always thought this referendum would come,” he said. “We had hoped it wouldn’t be until 2020, but there are so many projects.”
Why spend money on a second driveway to the high school?
According to Wasrud, the school district had wanted to have another access road when the high school was built in 1978, but the property was not for sale.
Dyb explained that the second driveway is needed for emergency access to the high school. He noted that the property was purchased with state sparsity funds.
“We would have purchased the property with or without the sparsity funds since this wasn’t an opportunity we could pass up,” Wasrud said.
Why are new locker rooms and a tennis court being built if the school district needs more money?
“No taxpayer money is being used for the tennis courts or locker room projects,” Thiel said. “Both are privately funded.”