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JC school board weighs small levy hike

Pioneer Trail debt targeted by increase

After four years of voluntarily rolling back the Jefferson City Public School’s debt service levy — saving taxpayers about $2.2 million — the Board of Education is considering raising it again.

For taxpayers the increase would be quite small: about $5 annually on a $150,000 house.

The extra money will pay down the money borrowed to build Pioneer Trail Elementary School and several other school additions funded from a 2007 bond issue.

The last time the district did not “roll back” the debt service levy was 2008. Between 2009 and 2011, the district used federal stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to temporarily protect taxpayers from higher taxes; between 2011 and 2013 board members were hesitant to raise taxes on families in a dicey economy.

“We needed it, but we had made the decision to not take it, out of concern for the taxpayers,” district chief financial officer Jason Hoffman explained.

He said those decisions were made with the understanding that the levy would have to be increased someday.

This school year, the debt service levy was $.2056 per $100 of assessed valuation. In the budget presented Monday evening, the new levy would be slightly higher at $.2220.

The total levy for the schools — if the board approves the proposal — would be $3.6934, still below the maximum authorized levy of $3.7642 and the state average of $4.0442.

The Board of Education will meet to set the rate in August.

Board member Marie Peoples wondered how the community would react to the change.

“It gives me pause. What message are we putting out there? It might not be well taken by the community,” she said.

Peoples suggested board members and other leaders within the school district should be prepared to answer questions about the levy increase.

“There is going to be some negativity and we have to handle it,” Peoples suggested.

Joy Sweeney, former board president, agreed some people in the community might conflate the board’s April request to build a new high school, which failed with voters, with the decision to increase the tax levy. But she made the case voters could be convinced.

“We do need the money and we are demonstrating that with this budget,” she said.

People’s words sparked umbrage from board member John Ruth, who seemed dismayed that critics who opposed the plan to build a new, single high school have unfairly characterized the district’s financial position as troubled, when he feels the district actually is in an excellent financial situation.

The district has a stated goal of maintaining operating cash reserves at 20 percent of anticipated expenditures; the budget presented Monday night exceeds that by keeping the balance at 24.5 percent.

He lamented that many people in the community are unaware of the district’s strong fiscal health.

“You have to have an honest discussion,” he said.

At Monday evening’s board meeting, Hoffman shared highlights of a $90.3 million budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year. Of that amount $6.9 million would pay for capital project and debt service and $83.4 million would cover operating expenditures.

A breakdown of the operating expenses showed that 63 percent of the district’s money would be spent on salaries, followed by benefits (18.1 percent), supplies and utilities (12.6 percent) and purchased services (6.3 percent).

One of the most difficult expenditures to control is diesel fuel for the district’s buses. Over the past few years, the district has spent anywhere between $308,000 to $460,000. Next year Hoffman is budgeting $506,000 — about a 10 percent increase.

In the budget, one of the largest new expenses is the purchase of 1,700 iPads for elementary student use. The goal is to purchase one device for elementary school teachers and five for every elementary classroom.

The devices, in part, will help students become familiar with the computers and keyboards they’ll need to take the state’s new standardized tests. If students don’t perform well on the tests — which are administered online — the district’s state funding could be jeopardized.

A problem for many districts across Missouri, including Jefferson City, is that not all schools have the equipment to administer online exams to all students in a tight time window.

Hoffman said the district also has hopes to supply every freshman, by August 2014, with an iPad. Ultimately the goal is to put a device in the hands of every high school student. Funding that concept still needs work, he said.

“We’re making every effort. That is our goal,” he said.

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