BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Local school officials have taken the next step in trying to get district facilities upgraded over the next 10 years.
The district voted unanimously at a workshop Monday evening to put a voted Physical Plant and Equipment Levy (PPEL) on a March 30th special ballot.
The move would generate about $1 million per year, according to district business manager Sandy Elmore. Taxpayers would see a $1.34 levy per $1,000 of equalized assessed valuation on their tax bill.
But Elmore said even with conservative estimations of about a 1.5% allowable growth from the Iowa legislature this year, the district’s tax asking would be in the range from static at $12.86/$1,000 EAV to possibly a couple cents lower.
The voted levy would sunset in 10 years.
The district already has an approved board-levied PPEL tax at .33/$1,000 EAV, but Elmore said that amounts to about $240,000 which is used for transportation expenses and the district’s 1:1 Chrome book program. PPEL funds can only be used for limited school infrastructure and transportation expenses.
The voted PPEL would help the district address urgent safety issues including beefing up safety and security measures at both elementary schools, finalizing the air conditioning of the high school, and then addressing facility needs identified in an initial report from Estes Construction.
The firm was hired in October to conduct an assessment report on the two elementaries and the high school. A full report with recommended actions, called a QLEO (pronounced CLEO) was reviewed by the board at the workshop.
“I think the bottom line is we’ve done the very best we can with the money we’ve had. We were utilizing some of general funds and our board-levied PPEL fund,” board member Dianne Hope said.
“Our maintenance costs – we’ve been handling those the best we can and focusing on doing some of the major things, but now the major things we put off are coming at us, like roofs.”
Board member Brad Menke said the district knew those issues were coming and the district should have been more fiscally responsible.
“We’ve known those things are going to come up,” he said.
“We can’t just neglect things for so long enough and then say to the public, we’ve neglected things long enough and now we need more tax money to fix everything. That’s the question I’m getting.”
Board president Tim Wondra said the district should have done the voted PPEL 10 years ago.
“If we take more money out of general fund, then we have to look at cutting staff to fix things. I don’t want an elementary class with 35 kids in it. Otherwise we have to raise taxes and no one wants to do that either. It’s trying to serve all masters at once.”
The district is still collecting revenues from the SAVE penny tax through 2029. The district used those funds, which are generated according to student enrollment based on a state formula, to build the middle school.
Those 20 year bonds were refinanced in 2019 saving the district about $1.5 million over the next 10 years. Those funds are earmarked by law for infrastructure improvements as well.
According to report from the Iowa Dept. of Education, the district received $2,198,148 from the SAVE tax in 2019. Elmore said the district pays about $1.1 million toward the middle school bonds, leaving approximately $1 million per year for the district to use on other infrastructure needs.
That revenue stream ends in 2029, but was extended by the legislature for another 20 years through 2050. For the district to access funds from the extension voters would need to re-authorize a Revenue Purpose Statement by a simple 50% majority. In 1999 when district voters approved utilizing what was then called the Statewide School Infrastructure Sales and Services Tax, with 54.5% support.
Elmore presented the statement to the board and said the vote could take place on the same ballot as the PPEL vote, but the board voted unanimously to not put that statement on the ballot and to just focus on the PPEL vote.
The vote on the revenue statement can be held during any school election, but the next scheduled election would be the regular board election in November of 2021. The district could also hold a special election to put the issue in front of voters, but at a cost of about $7,000. Either way, the district cannot access the extended SAVE funds past 2029 without approval of the revenue statement.
Board member Josh Wykert said it’s his opinion that if voters reject the PPEL levy in March, the district will have to look at serious cuts to get the needed facilities upgrades.
“If voters vote no, we’re gonna have to make the decision between buses and computers, or keeping buildings in disrepair, or cutting staff – that’s essentially what they would be saying,” Wykert said.