With a series of public forums and meetings, Fort Dodge Community School District board members and administrators hope to convince voters to renew and support an increase in the Physical Plant and Equipment Levy in a special election Tuesday.
The school district is asking voters to renew its 67-cent levy for another 10-year term and also increase the levy by another 67-cents. With a board-approved 33-cents, this will give the district the maximum $1.67 levy from 2014 to 2024.
A special election measure in December to renew and raise the PPEL was defeated 726-584. With 18,882 registered voters in the school district, according to the Webster County Auditor's Office, only 7 percent voted. The FDCSD board does not feel the vote represents the true opinion of the district.
In garnering support for the measure, district board members and administrators are responding to criticisms and misinformation about the PPEL.
Even though a levy increase is being requested, taxes have still been lowered overall for Fort Dodge residents by the district.
"Your school board and school district has lowered taxes by almost $2," Doug Van Zyl, FDCSD superintendent, said. "As a district they've made a very conscious effort to reduce their tax-asking of the community. This is the lowest rate your taxes have been in Fort Dodge for the last five years, by almost $2 per month."
Even with the increase, taxes will still be lower, according to Stuart Cochrane, FDCSD board president.
"If this levy is voter-approved, we will still be $1.34 cents below our tax-asking for the last five years," he said. "Your taxes are being lowered by $1.34 if this is approved."
The district does not have "unlimited dollars" and did not access a surplus to construct its new middle school.
"The middle school is a fantastic investment of, not your tax dollars, mind you, but sales tax," Cochrane said. "We didn't go to the property tax payers and ask them for money. We could have. One cent of your state sales tax is being allocated so we can do things like build projects. We allocated those dollars until the year 2030. We spent our sales tax dollars to build that new middle schools."
The maximum levy the board can request is $1.67. It is set for a 10-year term. The board cannot ask for more PPEL funds next year.
"We, at the school district, take a look at other school districts, and for a school in our conference, we're the only school district besides Mason city that is not at the maximum amount," Van Zyl said. "And the reason why they're not at the maximum levy is, if you take a look at their property, they have much more assessed value in property than we do here in Fort Dodge. So they can use a lower rate to generate just as much money."
It is illegal for PPEL funds to be used for anything other than maintenance, transportation and technology. It cannot be used for teachers, programs or construction.
"We don't have a choice," Cochrane said. "The state is very specific about what you can spend PPEL dollars on. Very specifically, bricks and mortar. It's not going to go into anything else."
The current PPEL, which has been in place for two 10-year terms, generates about $890,000 annually for the district. The district has $4 million in repair needs yearly, and has had to prioritize its spending.
The district is also asking for an increase because of rising costs.
"We've had this tax levy rate for the last 20 to 25 years. And when we take a look at the dollars it generates over time, it really only generates about a 1 percent increase per year," Van Zyl said. "What happens to the cost of our expenditures as a school district? How much was diesel fuel 20 years ago compared to what it is now? How much was the cost of steel 20 years ago, to replace a roof or fix part of a building? We're only getting a 1 percent revenue increase, and all our other things are going at 3, 5 percent. You can see we can't do the same amount of fixings and repairs in our buildings that we used to do 10 years ago, and that causes us to get further and further behind."
The FDCSD board is not being greedy or trying to "double down" on its levy. According to Cochrane, requesting the maximum levy for this next 10-year term was "the responsible thing to do."
"We believe we need at least $1.5 million," he said. "We could have come back at $1, and we chose not to. We recognize that, yes, it is a 67-cent per thousand increase, but given the fact that we've lowered taxes over the last five years, we thought it was a reasonable request and a good use of those dollars."
If the PPEL is not renewed, the burden of necessary maintenance expenses will fall on the district's general fund.
"Eighty-one percent of our general fund is dedicated dollars to people, staff. Teachers and programs," Cochrane said. "Those are spoken-for dollars. If we have a $3.9 million strain on the general budget, the reality is only one thing is going to happen: we're going to have to cut programming and we will have to reduce staff. Because those repairs, we're still going to need to fix leaky roofs, we're still going to have to repair cracked sidewalks. That's still going to happen, unfortunately it will affect education."
Cochrane added, "These aren't our buildings. These are the community's buildings. Your parents, your grandparents, everybody else who for years has invested in this community and public education. We're asking for everybody else to do the same thing."
The current 10-year PPEL expires July 2014. A special election to renew and increase the levy will be held Tuesday.