Lindbergh vows to take only what's needed if tax-rate hike OK'd
January 26, 2005 - By SCOTT MILLER
Lindbergh School District officials vow that if voters approve a proposed 65-cent tax-rate increase this spring, they will use only what's needed to avoid dipping into district reserves to balance the operating budget.
The Board of Education voted unanimously last week to place the tax-rate increase on the April 5 ballot. If voters approve the tax-rate increase of 65 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, board members pledged to phase in the increase over five years and not take the full amount the first year.
If approved, the tax-rate hike would cost a homeowner with a $200,000 residence an additional $246 annually on his property tax bill. Such an increase wouldn't be seen for at least another five years, however.
"There is a firm commitment by the board that the tax levy will be rolled back and we will only take what we need," board Vice President Barry Cooper said. "That's been the practice of the board and that's what we'll continue here. We believe this is the best option for the community and particularly those supporters that are on fixed incomes.
"In addition," he continued, "we believe it secures the financial position of the district for the next five years and it also ensures the ongoing quality of education for the students."
Board President Mark Rudoff and board member Drew Walk were out of town on business and participated in the special meeting via telephone.
Before voting for the referendum, Walk said, "The board will continue, at least from my perspective, continue to relentlessly look at costs and spend taxpayer money wisely."
Based on the current fiscal situation, Assistant Superintendent for Finance Pat Lanane told the Call anywhere from roughly 18 cents to 30 cents could be collected next year if the measure, called Proposition A, is approved.
But, he added, it is too hard to predict an exact figure right now because revenue and expenditure projections could change.
An increase of 20 cents per $100 assessed value would cost a homeowner with a $200,000 house about $38 annually, Lanane said.
If approved, Lindbergh's total tax rate, including operating and debt-service levies, would increase from $3.14 to $3.79 per $100 assessed value. Only the Ladue, Brentwood and Parkway school districts would have a lower tax-rate in the county than Lindbergh. Currently, Lindbergh collects the lowest tax rate in the county.
The 65-cent increase would generate roughly $6.5 million per year, Lanane said.
Since the district would phase it in, however, about $29 million would be collected over five years.
While the increase is proposed to balance the budget for five years, Lanane said, "maybe we can make it last longer than that."
Voters last approved an operating tax-rate increase in 1993, and the board, complying with a similar promise made for this referendum, rolled back its operating tax rate the following year.
"The one thing that I think the board has going for them is 12 years of keeping those types of promises," Lanane said. "I think the board's track record and its credibility on this is what the people will look to."
Last year, the full 36-cent increase voters approved in 1993 was reinstated, putting the district's operating tax rate at $2.76, one cent more than the minimum required by state law.
By rolling back the tax rate for roughly 10 years, Lanane said the district lost — or taxpayers saved — about $30 million in local revenue.
"The board said we'll take it when we need it and that's exactly what they've done," he said.
Voters recently increased Lindbergh's debt-service levy to fund the construction of a new swimming pool natatorium and a library along with other capital upgrades. That money may only be used for capital improvements, however, not general operating expenditures.
By the end of fiscal 2005, Lindbergh will have spent about $800,000 in its reserves, Lanane said. Without the tax increase, up to $3 million could be needed next year, he said.
Currently, Lindbergh's reserves are about $22.25 million, nearly 50 percent of its operational budget.
"This proposal does not build the re-serves. They will stay where they are," Lan-ane said. "But it will have the effect of de-creasing our percentage of reserves even though the dollar amount will stay pretty much static throughout that time."
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.
The district already cut roughly $2 million in expenditures last year, Lanane said, so any more cuts will spill into the classroom.
"There are some options," he said. "Un-fortunately none of them are very good."
In a recent community survey, 51 percent of 300 surveyed residents said they supported a 67-cent tax increase. After being asked how to spend the money, support grew to 53 percent. The survey carries a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.
Lindbergh needs a simple majority to pass the increase.
When asked how to spend the money, surveyed residents overwhelmingly supported maintaining core academics, attracting high quality teachers, meeting state and federal mandates and maintaining small class sizes.
Residents' opinions mirrored recommendations by the district's Citizens' Budget Committee, which recommended that the board seek a tax increase.
The ballot language for Proposition A reads, "Shall the school board of the Lind-bergh School District be authorized to in-crease the operating tax levy to maintain core academic programs, attract and retain high quality teachers, meet state and federal mandates for reading and math, maintain small class sizes and maintain operations by 65 cents per $100 of assessed valuation? If this proposition is approved, the adjusted operating levy of the school district is estimated to be $3.42 per $100 of assessed valuation."
"Nowhere in this (ballot) language does it say anything about rolling back and taking only what we need, so I think it's very critical that we make sure that our public knows that is our intent," board member Vic Lenz said.