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SSC district to decide on school referendum

OKABENA -- One week from today, voters in the Southwest Star Concept (Heron Lake-Okabena) school district will go to the polls to decide on what could become one of the largest operating levy referendums in the state, if approved.

More than three dozen people attended an informational meeting Monday night in the SSC High School gym to hear why the referendum is needed, what property owners in the district will see in a tax increase and what may happen if voters reject the referendum.

SSC School Superintendent Becky Cselovszki said the $1,000-per-pupil-unit referendum increase being proposed would be in addition to two referendums already in place in the district. Those referendums include a $586 per pupil unit referendum passed in 2001, and a $500 per pupil unit referendum passed in 2003 because the district faced statutory operating debt. Each of those referendums were set to expire at the end of 10 years, but Cselovszki said next Tuesday's vote will roll both of those referendums into the new request, thereby extending them for another 10 years and setting the total operating levy referendum at $2,087.23 per pupil unit.

Cselovszki said that while there is a cap on an operating levy referendum, the SSC district is considered a sparsity district, and can therefore request a higher levy referendum than most schools in the state.

If voters approve the new referendum, she said the district would go about $300 to $400 above the cap, but over time it would likely even out because the cap is increased each year.

How they got here

In March, SSC hosted a series of three meetings on the state of the school district. With a continued decline in enrollment, along with no increase in state funding, the district's budget went from a balance of $876,637 in 2008 to $600,000 in 2009.

During the public meetings in March, several options were discussed to cut an estimated $100,000 in expenses, including a reduction in teaching staff and programs, moving to a four-day school week, further consolidating sports programs, pairing with a neighboring district or increasing the operating levy.

District residents provided considerable feedback during those meetings, and in April the SSC school board voted unanimously to proceed with an operating levy referendum. All voters who reside in the SSC school district may vote on the operating referendum during the Nov. 3 election. Polls will be open from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Heron Lake Elementary School.

"We encourage people to vote," said SSC board chairman John Stenzel.

Tax impact

If voters approve the new operating levy referendum, they will see their property taxes increase considerably. On property with an estimated market value of $50,000, the tax increase would be $182 -- that is in addition to what is already being paid in school taxes.

Residential properties and businesses are taxed at the same rate, while farms are taxed only on the house, garage and one acre of land.

Additional property values and the increase in tax dollars to the school district include: $100,000 property, $363 tax increase; $200,000 property, $726 tax increase; $300,000 property, $1,090 tax increase; and $400,000 property, $1,453 tax increase.

One resident in attendance Monday night was concerned about the amount of the tax increase.

Melvin Vander Veen said his taxes would increase 39 percent if the referendum was approved.

"It's tough," he said. "I'm on a fixed income and my Social Security (payments) didn't go up."

Another voter asked about open enrollment -- whether the families of those students open-enrolled into the district were subject to the tax increase, and what would happen if the school district didn't allow open enrollment.

Cselovszki said the district is not able to collect property taxes from people who live outside the district, regardless if their students are attending SSC. At the same time, she said the district does collect the $5,000 per pupil unit from the state for each student that open enrolls into the district.

"If the enrollment law changed, we probably wouldn't be here," said Cselovszki. Of the 315 students enrolled in the district today, approximately 60 of them are coming from outside the school district.

What if voters deny increase?

The outcome of the Nov. 3 vote will determine if the school will be able to collect additional funding in 2010-2011, or if they need to go back to the drawing board. A simple majority of the votes cast will decide the fate.

If the referendum fails, the SSC school board will go back to the options presented during the public meetings in March and decide on the next path for the school district.

In a brochure sent to district residents in recent weeks, it stated that educational programming would be reduced and class sizes would be increased if the referendum failed.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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