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Community survey shows support for a Lindbergh School District tax-rate increase


January 19, 2005 - By SCOTT MILLER

Staff Reporter

Roughly 58 percent of surveyed Lindbergh School Dis-trict residents support a 49-cent tax-rate increase and about 51 percent support a 67-cent increase.

Nearly 63 percent also prefer a long-term funding solution, including a tax-rate increase, over spending down district reserves to balance the budget. About 20 percent favor tapping Lindbergh's $22.25 million reserve fund, which is nearly 50 percent of its operational budget.

The survey carries a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.

Assistant Superintendent for Finance Pat Lanane, the district's chief financial officer, presented the community survey results to the Board of Education last week. With the survey in hand and a public hearing behind them, board members were scheduled to meet Tuesday night — after the Call went to press — to decide whether to place a tax-rate increase on the April 5 ballot and the amount of such a proposal.

In a telephone survey conducted by Chilenski Strategy Group, about 300 residents were asked a variety of questions pertaining to district performance, the need for new revenue and support for a tax-rate hike.

The survey results were unusually favorable, according to David Chilenski of the Chilenski Strategy Group.

"These are some of the highest I've seen for any public entity whether it be fire district, water district, park district or school district," Chilenski said. "Really it is a testament to what a quality of education this school district has provided for the community. And the community really recognizes that and appreciates that and that's why these results are so favorable.

"Honestly," he added, "if people thought you were not doing a good job, they would have told us, and they would not have been shy about it."

Chilenski has conducted similar surveys for the county Department of Parks and Recreation as well as other municipal, school, fire and hospital taxing districts in Missouri and Texas, he said.

Lack of funding was the No. 1 response when asked what was the single biggest issue facing the district, and 53 percent said additional funding is needed.

When asked how additional tax money should be spent, 84 percent wanted to maintain core academics, 79 percent wanted competitive teacher salaries, 75 percent wanted to increase services to meet state and federal mandates and 65 percent wanted to maintain small class sizes.

And after being asked how to spend the money, support for a property tax boost actually increased — 61 percent then said they would support a 49-cent tax-rate in-crease, 53 percent support a 67-cent increase and 48 percent support an 81-cent jump.

Lindbergh's current rate is $3.14 per $100 assessed valuation, the lowest in the county.

"It's interesting to me that simply because through the survey you're talking with someone, they learned about the school district and they learned about some of our needs, the 81-cent numbers jumped up 4 percent at the end of the survey ... simply because you give a little bit of education to people," Lanane said.

On the district's academic performance, 84 percent rated it as "excellent or good" and 48 percent said Lindbergh schools were the reason they moved into the community.

"Almost 70 percent of the people said: 'It's important to me that the Lindbergh schools are the way are for me to continue to live here,"' Lanane said, referring to the district's top-notch academic performance on state-mandated tests.

Without additional funding, Lanane and Nancy Rathjen, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said tutoring programs, reading specialists, math specialists and other educational support systems could be cut, impairing Lindbergh's ability to meet state and federal mandates, let alone rank at the top of the list when compared to neighboring schools.

For more than a decade, Lindbergh has received the best financial audit possible.

The district has received the Missouri Distinction in Performance Award four straight years, a rare feat.

The dropout rate has decreased steadily while more than 93 percent of Lindbergh graduates attend post-secondary education. Survey respondents overwhelmingly said it was important to maintain those distinct characteristics.

"The community does have a very high opinion of the school district," Lanane said. "They have very high confidence, especially with the accomplishments the district has made over the past several years, and there is a support here for a modest tax increase should the board decide to precede with one."

And the support could increase, Lanane said as some responded "I don't know" to many of the questions on the survey. If Lindbergh does seek a tax-rate increase in April, Lanane said an educational campaign informing the community of the district's fiscal concerns could help undecided voters form an opinion.

Even with the support from the survey and the support from a recent public hearing, Lanane said, "nothing is for certain in this world."

He did, however, feel the survey offered an accurate, reflective sample of the Lindbergh community.

"The demographics of the survey mirrored the demographics of our community, particularly our voting community," Lanane said.

Of those surveyed, 94.7 percent are homeowners; 23 percent are between the ages of 18 to 49; 31 percent are 50 to 64 years old; 46 percent are older than 65 — of those, 21 percent are older than 75; 77 percent have no children; and 22 percent have children.

Of the 22 percent with children, 14 percent attend Lindbergh schools; 2.3 percent attend private schools; 4 percent are at parochial schools; and 1.7 percent aren't enrolled in school yet, Lanane said.

"I think we got to the group that we wanted to hear from," he added.

After reviewing Lindbergh's past and projected fiscal climate, the Citizens' Bud-get Committee recommended the board seek a tax-rate increase. With expenditures growing beyond revenues, they said the tax increase was "an educational best buy." The committee also recommended maintaining competitive teacher salaries, up-to-date technology and high academic performance. The recommendations mirrored those given in the survey and several comments from a public hearing on Jan. 6.

More than 90 people attended the hearing to voice their opinions regarding a potential tax increase. Board members and district administrators answered questions for around an hour and then received written comments before opening the floor for public opinion. Including both written and spoken comments, the majority favored the increase.

Board members have not committed to putting a referendum asking for a tax-rate hike on the April 5 ballot, however, nor have they decided how much of a tax increase would be needed.

Lanane has said in the past that an additional 56 cents per $100 equalized valuation probably is needed to break even the next five years and avoid using reserves.

That number could and probably will change, he said, as the board discusses potential expenditure cuts or alternative revenue increases.

Lanane wouldn't offer a recommended tax-rate increase figure at last week's meeting, but said, "The goal is to not touch the reserves."

Based on his figures, Lindbergh will spend $1.08 million in reserves this fiscal year, which ends June 30. Without additional revenue, he expects around $850,000 will be needed next year, which is about 8.5 cents per $100 assessed value.

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