Well-Informed Webster People held a forum Thursday at Light of the City Conference Center on the upcoming special election on the Physical Plant and Equipment Levy.
A special election measure to renew the 67-cent, 10-year levy used for Fort Dodge Community School District building maintenance and transportation, along with an increase of 67 cents to the maximum $1.67 levy, was defeated by voters in December.
The FDCSD school board hopes that with better communication about the levy, voters will approve the measure in a second special election on Feb. 5.
Brian Forsythe, FDCSD board vice president, and board member Bill Kent spoke to the group of 12. Kent explained how the district’s yearly budget of $890,000 in PPEL funds is used.
“It’s used for maintenance, infrastructure, things like computers, school buses,” Kent said. “We put somewhere around, as an example, 300,000 miles on our school buses running our routes each year. We have 36 buses. They cost around $80,000 to $90,000 apiece. It’s just like your family car, you can only run it so long. Every once in a while you have to replace it.”
PPEL funds are also used for security and technology.
“We spend about $350,000 on technology,” Kent said, “which is mainly upgrading the computers and the computer equipment.”
District school buildings need about $3 million in repairs yearly. Because the district has only had $900,000 in funds for buildings the past 10 years, since the 67-cent levy was approved, it has fallen behind. Even with the increase to a doubled yearly budget of $1.5 million, it will not be enough to catch up, Kent said.
“We are still somewhere around a million and a half dollars short of our overall building needs, but we would be a little bit closer,” he said. “We realize that raising this PPEL will not solve all of our facility issues, but it will move us in the right direction.”
Without PPEL funds, money for maintenance will have to come from the general fund. Kent said 81 percent of this fund is used for staff.
“If we’re going to make any significant cuts in the general budget, it will be laying off staff and cutting programs in the school,” he said. “I don’t think anybody wants that.”
In May 2012, to meet a $1.7 million budget shortfall, the district repurposed Riverside Elementary as an early learning center and reduced its staff.
Doug Van Zyl, FDCSD superintendent, said it is illegal for the state 1-cent sales tax, of which the funds for the next 20 years are invested in the construction of the new middle school, to be used for anything other than construction.
According to Kent, even with the requested increase to the maximum levy of $1.67, it will still be a net decrease in citizens’ property taxes.
“Your current property tax levy is $15.48 and then the extra 67 cents we’re asking for,” he said. “That tax rate would be less than the property tax rate you paid for the school any time in the last four years.”
He added, “If PPEL passes and we get an increase, it will still be a lower tax.”
Kent emphasized that in December only 1,300 voters participated in the special election, with the measure defeated by fewer than 150 votes.
“We really do feel like we’ve been good stewards of the money you’ve give to us,” he said.
Responding to a comment that Fort Dodge citizens would have supported a renewal of the 67-cent levy alone, Forsythe said the requested increase is because costs have increased since the levy was last approved by voters.
“If you look at the difference in cost nine years ago to what it is now, that is a lot of the reason why we need more money to cover the same areas,” he said. “When we started out nine years ago, we had roughly 250 computers in the district. We’re up to over 1,600 now. That alone is a difference.”
Guidelines prohibit the district from offering two separate levy measures or an either/or option on a ballot, Van Zyl said.
Forsythe said Fort Dodge would benefit from supporting a PPEL increase.
“A strong school system is a key part of economic development,” he said. “That’s part of the reason we’re trying so hard to get this passed. With everything going on in town, the fact of the matter is, there’s going to be an influx of students hopefully coming into this area. We’re going to be competing for those students.”
Van Zyl emphasized that increasing PPEL not only supports Fort Dodge Community School District, but the entire Fort Dodge community.
“(St. Edmond Catholic School)’s kids ride our buses. St. Ed and Iowa Central (Community College) kids use our stadium. These dollars also go to support all those areas and those entities in our community,” he said. “It truly is a community need, even though we spearhead it as a district.”