With a looming deficit of more than $1 million, Madison-Plains Local School officials are trying to figure out what kind of levy they need to ask for, and how to get it passed this fall.
The board met Tuesday night for a special session, where they discussed the district’s financial situation and their best plan to balance the budget by 2020. According to the current forecast, the district will be at a negative balance of $1.28 million by that year.
It was quickly agreed by the board that the district needed to pass a levy. They decided to look into two options for 2017:
• Renewing the current Permanent Improvements levy for another five years, which is currently collected 0.86 mills.
The money collected from this levy would be used to cover the cost of maintaining the infrastructure and supplies of the school, such as buses.
The board is considering putting this levy, which expires next year, on the November ballot.
Superintendent Tim Dettwiller noted this levy has historically been supported by voters, with the exception in 2013 when the district tried to replace the levy with a higher tax rate.
There would be no increase in taxes collected.
• Adding a new emergency operating levy, for five years.
With this levy, the district would ask for a certain total dollar amount which would be raised by property taxes adjusted each year to stay within the voted dollar amount.
“So let’s say in one year, to cover your portion you would be charged 7 mills,” said Treasurer Todd Mustain. “In the next year, if property values increased, you might be charged 6 mills or lower. Your costs would remain the same. It’s similar to how other levies work.”
The treasurer estimated the district may ask for $2.2 million. Mustain emphasized this figure could easily change.
This levy, if pursued, would be on the ballot in August.
Dettwiller said he and the treasurer would be looking into getting exact figures to make the levy as effective as possible. Full details on this option will be discussed at the next board meeting on Tuesday, March 21 at 6 p.m.
Other options the board considered were an earned income tax, at a rate of 1.25 percent. As it’s only on earned income, it would decrease the burden on those earning a fixed income, such as retirees.
The least popular option considered was replacing an existing levy to increase the effective millage so it would collect at the rate of current property values.
No vote was taken on which levy to put on the ballot. However, the board found that levies in general were the best option, compared to more cuts.
Superintendent: ‘We’ve cut everything we can’
Dettwiller said the district has cut as much as possible. These efforts have included closing elementary schools with small enrollment rates in 2012, offering early retirement to higher paid teachers and getting into a healthcare consortium that helped make healthcare costs more manageable.
Anything further would mean fewer teachers and few course offerings.
“Myself and Todd feel that we’re at the point where we’ve cut out just about everything we can cut until we actually start cutting services,” said Dettwiller. “I always try to use hypotheticals and not name any names, but we’re getting to the point where when I say services are going away, then bodies are going away. Services is a nice name for personnel.”
State funding is also decreasing due to how the state awards money. Mustain said that the good quality farmland arbitrarily adds up into the funding formula, making the district appear far wealthier than it is.
“I know those farmers don’t have disposable income, so to hear how wealthy we are is frustrating,” said board member Mark Mason. “I know some of us struggle to make our farm payments.”
Dettwiller said they had tried everything to get more state funding sources, including controversial policies such a two-tier busing.
“We’re in a pickle. There’s money over here the state will give us for running a program that will still transport our students that’s well above [the cost],” he said. “Then there’s the other 70 percent of the district asking for us to do everything we can to cut costs and decrease the levy need.”
“I’m not a glutton for punishment,” he added. “Why would we do it if we’re not going to benefit in some way?”
Mustain also provided charts comparing the district’s levies to other local schools. According to the chart, Madison-Plains effectively collects about 20 mills worth of taxes, while London collects 23 mills, Jonathan Alder 25 mills and Jefferson at more than 30 mills.
In addition, Madison-Plains is the only district in Madison County that doesn’t charge an earned income tax. London and Jefferson collect 1 percent while Jonathan Alder takes in 1.25 percent.
“We’re providing a great deal now, and we can’t afford to keep providing that great deal,” said Dettwiller. “And I know people are hurting and they don’t want to hear that. If you’re playing $20,000 on a farm and then being told ‘that’s not very much,’ you don’t want to hear that.”
In the worst case scenario, if funds weren’t raised to keep the district out of the red by 2020, the state would come in to observe the district’s fiscal situation. The state could mandate cuts, potentially gutting staff.
“I doubt this will happen, as this is the absolute worst-case scenario,” said Dettwiller.
The superintendent said he wants to encourage more input from the community and speak directly to people on the school’s situation.
Maximilian Kwiatkowski can be reached at 740-852-1616, ext. 1617 or on Twitter @MSFKwiat.