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Lindbergh seeks residents' comments tonight about possible tax-rate increase


January 05, 2005 - By SCOTT MILLER

Staff Reporter

Lindbergh residents can discuss a possible tax-rate in-crease with Board of Education members and school district administrators at 7 p.m. today — Jan. 6 — in the Anne Morrow Lindbergh Room on the high school campus, 4900 S. Lindbergh Blvd.

The public forum is designed to gather community input regarding a potential ballot measure for the April 5 election that would hike the district's operating tax rate for the first time since 1993.

Pat Lanane, assistant superintendent for finance and the district's chief financial officer, briefly will present an overview of Lindbergh's financial situation and a report from the Citizens' Budget Committee. He then will open the floor for questions and comments from the community.

Particularly, Lanane told the Call, the district wants input concerning district spending priorities from residents who no longer have children attending school in the district.

Such residents constitute the vast majority of the Lind-bergh community, he noted.

The Green Park Chamber of Commerce also is asking residents to voice their views. It issued a statement last week urging the public to reject any tax-rate increase, claiming Lindbergh's $22.25 million reserve coffer is much too large to endorse any tax-rate hike.

At press time, Chamber of Commerce President Jim Smoot had collected 72 signatures for a petition opposing the potential tax-rate increase.

"They have a $43 million budget and more than $22 million in reserves and you mean to tell me that the management group can't find a way to save $1 million," Smoot told the Call. "It's become a large bureaucracy down there. The taxpayers don't want to pay more money."

But Lanane warned against spending reserves with no revenue increase, saying the reserve fund would dip below 25 percent of the operating budget within about three years, leaving little savings, no new revenue and larger expenditures. Reserves currently are roughly 50 percent, but district administrators, Board of Education members, auditors and the budget panel want them to stay at 25 percent at least.

"That's the minimum balance we have to have, not the optimum," Lanane said. "I think it's unfortunate all government groups don't watch their finances so they can do something before you have a financial problem. We could spend some reserves, but the problem is it's like spending your savings account. That's a very bad financial practice. When those savings are gone, you're still left with those monthly expenses."

Lindbergh has publicized a potential tax increase for months through the Budget Committee, Smoot said, hoping to eventually gain voter sympathy.

"They keep talking about them and talking about them until voter apathy kicks in," Smoot said.

But Lanane countered that the district is looking for additional revenue before severe fiscal strain can hit in the future.

After meeting with Lanane for about one month, reviewing the district's stagnant revenues and growing expenditures, the budget committee recommended the Board of Education consider a tax-rate increase in April as well as dig for "innovative" ways to save cash and generate new revenue.

During special meetings, school board members briefly discussed the idea, but haven't specifically identified an amount for the increase, only saying if they seek an increase, it would be enough to last at least five years.

Lanane said community input could help determine the amount, and the board granted Lanane authority in early December to hire the Chilenski Strategy Group to conduct a telephone survey for resident opinion. The survey won't be available until Jan. 11, Lanane said, after the public forum.

Besides the tax-rate increase, the committee of parents, teachers, business owners and former board members suggested the district consider selling sponsorship rights for non-academic programs or instituting student activity fees to participate in extracurricular activities.

The extra revenue, they said, is needed to maintain competitive teacher salaries, up-to-date technology and high academic achievement. They called the tax-rate in-crease "an educational best buy."

Lindbergh voters last approved an operating tax-rate increase in 1993 — a 36-cent increase to $2.78 per $100 equalized assessed valuation. The next year though, district officials rolled back the rate to $2.42. During the past two fiscal years, the district has brought the rate back to $2.78, the same level as 1993.

The district's debt-service levy has in-creased — with voter approval — since 1993, but that revenue only may be used to retire bonds from capital projects such as Proposition 4, not help fund general operating expenses.

Including both the operating and debt-service levies, Lindbergh has the lowest tax rate at $3.14 per $100 assessed value of any public school district in St. Louis County.

Meanwhile, state funding is fixed at 1993 levels because Lindbergh is a "hold-harmless" district. Lindbergh has received $289 per student from the state since 1993. The district spent $7,731 per student last year, $220 less than the previous year.

Expenditures continue to increase, however, particularly the salary and benefit expenses accounting for nearly 80 percent of operating expenditures and the costs associated with the Missouri School Im-provement Program and the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

And staffing was cut last year to get costs down to nearly 80 percent, Lanane said.

Based on current revenue and expenditure trends, Lanane predicts next year's budget will be about $850,000 in the hole and the committee warned board members not to use the reserve fund to balance the operating budget, but rather save the money for emergencies and unanticipated costs.

The district will spend less reserve money than anticipated this year — about $1.08 million — but made several budget cuts last year to keep reserve spending in check. Any more cuts, Lanane said, will spill into the classroom.

"Those lists (of cuts last year) were very long," he previously told the Call, "and we tried to think of everything and anything that wouldn't affect the classroom. If we have further major reductions — $500,000, $1 million — it will get into the classrooms. I don't see anyway around it."

Still, Lindbergh has one of the largest reserve funds in the state and received more revenue already for fiscal 2004, which doesn't end until July 1, than originally anticipated, based on a budget amendment the board approved Dec. 14.

When the 2004 fiscal year ends June 30, the district should have a fund balance around $22.25 million, roughly 50 percent of its total operating budget, according to Lanane's figures.

This year's beginning balance was $23.33 million based on final audited numbers, but when budgeting last year, Lanane expected it would be roughly $21 million. And the budget committee recommended maintaining the reserve at 25 percent of Lindbergh's operating budget, or around $10 million.

Lindbergh officials originally budgeted to spend roughly $2.2 million in reserves this year, but that figure has dwindled to about $1.08 million because more revenue has come in than anticipated.

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