MIFFLIN — About 20 Iowa–Grant citizens braved the blowing, drifting snow March 18 to attend the school district’s central informational meeting regarding the upcoming referendum.
The referendum (“Iowa–Grant School District referendum April 2,” March 20), planned for the April 2 election, will ask the voters to approve exceeding the state revenue limits to cover operational costs for the schools. The amount of $950,000 is being requested for each of the next three school years, ending in June 2016.
The first-year tax increase for owners of a $100,000 home would be a total of $81. Then the mil rate will actually decrease slightly for the second and third years of the referendum.
“The funds are needed because state aids and revenue limits have not kept pace with the increasing costs of transportation, utilities, personnel, and other fixed costs of the district,” Superintendent Linda Erickson told the audience. “Additionally our revenue limit was severely decreased two years ago and is projected to remain flat. This does not allow the district to keep up. Several years ago we reached the point where we could not cut enough to match the revenue limit and still maintain a functioning effective school district.
“Over the last 10 years we have reduced our employees by 31 people. We have made changes to insurance coverage and deductibles. We have reduced retirement provisions. We have increased employee contributions to retirement and insurance. We have increased student fees. We have deferred needed maintenance projects, and delayed equipment and material replacement rotations.”
The high school has reduced teachers to having only eight in the academic areas. The student/teacher ratio is 29:1, although not all these students are in a class at one time.
Erickson presented an overview of the district’s financial history and current status — revenue limit, funding, enrollment trends, equalized property values, expenditure budget, fund balance history, and more.
About 44 percent of elementary and middle school families are considered of low income, more than the state average of 40 percent. The percentage of students with disabilities who require special education is 18 percent, higher than the state average of 13 percent. Due to required low class sizes and other factors, special education is more expensive to provide.
Erickson’s report included tax levy and mil rate comparisons with 12 other area districts. Among them Iowa–Grant is fourth from the bottom in tax levy and near the bottom in mil rate.
Erickson said Americans With Disabilities Act “compliance has been a law for over 21 years, and there are two sites in the high school — the auditorium and weight room — that are not compliant.”
Erickson showed a building restructuring plan that would allow the district to incorporate changes for ADA compliance with other improvements that are needed in the district. Mentioned were inadequate ventilation in the agriculture shop, and lack of any practice rooms in the music area.
Erickson said the costs for this project are not included in the referendum, and the school board hasn’t approved the project yet. If approved, it would be funded with a loan from a local bank. This could be done with a 2.25-percent fixed interest rate, with payments estimated at about $100,000 per year.
Chris Spurley asked if Iowa–Grant’s high special education numbers are due to students coming from other districts through open enrollment.
“Currently we have three students with disabilities who are open enrolled, but the great majority are from the Iowa–Grant district,” said Erickson. “We have low income housing in some of our towns and a transient population. Some of those families do have children who are handicapped. So it can be a very volatile population who are with us one year and not the next.”
From the audience, Steve Mueller asked, “How has Iowa-Grant been able to circumvent ADA regulations for 22 years, and why has it not been a problem in the past. Has Iowa–Grant just been very lucky not to have had a complaint?”
“We have been very lucky,” said Erickson. “All it takes is one complaint. The lawyers and our insurance companies are telling us that if a complaint was filed, we would have no defense because this is breaking the law.”
Erickson mentioned an incident in the auditorium this past winter when a woman in a wheelchair came to see the high school musical. There was a difficult situation with her seating, and it was potentially dangerous. Since then, the auditorium is closed to public events.
A woman from the audience commented, “I was there that night, and something very serious could have happened. I saw firsthand the importance of having our school buildings ADA compliant.”
“In a year, we have probably six students in wheelchairs due to injuries and other causes,” said Erickson. “To say they cannot participate in the same things as all the other students, we can’t do that. We do have permanently disabled students coming up [to high school] and we have to be able to provide them an equitable education.”
On another topic, Jeff Thomas asked, “In the past we’ve had to pay health insurance for retired employees and that is a drain on the budget. Is that still the case and how much is owed?”
“We have three years left until the large group who retired and were guaranteed eight years of insurance are moved off the retiree insurance plan,” said Erickson.
Loras Winders, director of business and finance, said 20 people remain on the plan and four will be removed from it this year, five next year, and the final 11 will be moved off the year after that. The total cost this year for these past employees is $270,000.
Thomas asked if this could happen in the future.
“We changed our retirement plan so the district will never be in that position again,” said Erickson.
Erickson was asked to explain why the tax rate will go up the first year of the referendum and the mil rate will go down the second and third years.
“It’s because our property tax is directly related to our property value,” she answered. “The projection is for property values to go up, and that lowers the mil rate.”
A woman inquired about the list of programs that would be eliminated over three years, if the referendum fails. She noted with concern that they include agriculture and music.
“The board would be faced with these difficult decisions, and they are not looking forward to it,” said Erickson. “The list of things to be eliminated was based on everything that is not required for graduation.”
School board president Steve Christianson said the potential restructuring plans for high school ADA compliance include improvements for both the agriculture and music areas.
“We have to remember that we are in an open enrollment situation and have to make our programs appealing,” he said. “We’re doing the very best we can, but it will be very difficult without this referendum.”
Spurley asked the board members and administrators, “How do you feel our curriculum stacks up compared to other schools in the area?”
“Except for the shortage of things like track and swim team, I think we’re a pretty impressive district,” said Christianson.
“I feel we’re above the bar in technology,” said board member Chad Hahn.
School board member Darla Burton noted that Iowa–Grant is one of the first to take advantage of new programs such as Project Lead the Way.
Erickson pointed out that, in addition to Advanced Placement classes, the high school now offers courses in English and Physics for which students earn university credits. “We are always providing for our students to make the next connection in their lives,” she said.
“As one who is new to this district and familiar with other districts, I feel the quality of some of our programs is amazing,” said Iowa–Grant Elementary/Middle School Principal Tom Whitford. “What is offered in this building is amazing, and I hope we can make these changes for the high school to catch up.”
“As you can see from the charts and figures, we have gone down in both revenue and state aid,” said Erickson. “Referendum money is really keeping the district afloat.”