RTR to have special election

Voters to determine fate of school buildings in February

TYLER — After 45 minutes of discussion at a special meeting on Wednesday evening, the Russell-Tyler-Ruthton School board voted 5-1 to pass and adopt a resolution relating to the issuance of school building bonds and calling for an election. However, there was a change to the language and the board also plans to continue exploring different financial options, including the possibility of an operating levy, to help fund a facilities improvement project in the district.

Voters in the district will now have the opportunity to vote for or against the effort in a special election slated for Feb. 12.

Board member Tami Nelson, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said she was uncomfortable with the first sentence of the resolution which stated that the board believes under current law that it has the authority to close any of the schools of the district.

“The first sentence jumps out at me,” Nelson said. “Six years ago, they said we couldn’t, so I don’t believe that.”

Board member Troy Chandler agreed and RTR Superintendent Dave Marlette said it was possible to strike certain parts of the resolution statement.

“In the same paragraph, it goes on to say that before anything like that is done, it will be voted on by the public,” Chandler said. “So let’s strike everything that doesn’t need to be there. We’re asking the voters to vote on that one way or another, so it doesn’t need to be there.”

Board chair Jeff Hansen clarified the new wording before the board voted on the resolution.

“The board is requesting the voters to give authorization to close and demolish, if necessary, some of all of its three existing school facilities,” Hansen said. “The board also finds and determines that it is necessary and expedient for the school district to borrow money in an aggregate amount not to exceed $35 million and not to exceed any limitation upon the incurring of indebtedness, which shall be applicable on the date or dates of the issuance of any bonds, for the purpose of providing funds for the acquisition and betterment of school sites and facilities, including the construction and equipping of a new pre-K-12 school facility and related site improvements in Tyler, Minnesota, to replace the closed school facilities, and to contract and pay for the demolition of any vacated facilities. The closing of the existing facilities, the demolition of any vacated facilities and the construction of a new facility to replace these closed facilities are part of a single capital plan. The question on the borrowing of funds for these purposes shall be School District Question 1 on the school district ballot at the special election held to authorize said borrowing.”

At the beginning of the meeting, Chandler inquired about the possibility of another financial avenue besides a building bond. He and other board members learned more about operating levies and how district taxpayers would be impacted both ways.

“There are a lot of scenarios,” Marlette said. “But what you have to remember is that in a facility bond, we’re spreading the taxes across $987 million of property, In an operating levy, we’re spreading that tax across $183 million. That’s the difference.”

Nelson said it seems like an operating levy in which farmers are only taxed on their house and 1 acre of land would be more beneficial for the large number of agricultural landowners in the district.

“I think the farmers side of it, they’d like that better,” she said. “I seriously do. Their land is not going to be taxed then.”

There are some downsides to an operating levy, though.

“Farmers would lose that 40 percent Ag2School credit,” Hansen said.

Marlette explained that a levy helps level the playing field and that all voters are taxed at the same rate, though that doesn’t mean everyone pays the same amount.

“The rate under an operating levy is all the same across the district, but if I have a $100,000 worth of property on my house and say you have a $500,000 house and some buildings on that acre and they say it’s valued at $1 million, even though the rate is the same, you’d pay more taxes because the value of that 1 acre is higher,” he said.

Marlette shared some rough estimates for Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 operating levy hypotheticals, which board members suggested seemed high.

“It would never pass,” board member Craig Hess said.

Board clerk Peggy Dunblazier asked Marlette if any other districts had sought concurrent multiple financial options. Marlette said he’d have to ask the state.

“They’d tell me, so that’s something we can look at,” he said.

Nelson said that looking at all options was important, especially for the farmers, who look to carry more than 80 percent of the financial burden.

“From the farmer’s point of view, you have to put (the building bond) in perspective as it’s over 20 years if that’s what the bond is going to be for,” Nelson said. “It’s like taking out a mortgage for some of them. I know there’s one that’ll be $200,000, so it’s a tough decision.”

Marlette recommended running several scenarios out in the next few weeks.

“We have a couple weeks before our December board meeting — I know you’re all busy, but if you’d like to come in — I’ll get the tax calculations together and we can play with the numbers and make a report to the board at that December meeting,” Marlette said. “We can try to find a happy middle ground that would work.”

Marlette added that if a decision to ask district voters to support an operating levy was made, the total amount of the building bond could certainly be lowered.

“This resolution says an amount not to exceed $35 million, so if the board decides they only want the building bond to be $20 million and have a $15 million operating levy, it’s possible to do that,” Marlette said. “We should definitely play with the numbers. But there’s one scary thing I want you to think about. The max on an operating levy is 10 years. Our bond is going to be 20. So that would mean that we’ll have to go back to our voters 10 years down the road and ask them to approve that levy again. If that would fail, there’d be some head scratching at that time.”

Chandler asked if an operating levy and building bond could be combined in one question so that it either passes or it doesn’t. Marlette responded, saying he believes it can be in one vote.

“I don’t know if it can be in one ballot question, but it can be in one election,” Marlette said.

Hess noted that a “No” vote would basically shoot the whole thing down anyway.

“If $25 million passed and the levy didn’t pass, you’re sitting with a $35 million bill and only $25 million to go toward it, so you can’t build the school anyway,” Hess said. “It’s not fiscally smart. I think it would be good to talk to the state and see if there’s nobody doing this, there has to be a reason why. What’s the benefit versus the detriment?”

Marlette said it was getting into the weeds a little bit, but he has a feeling that by having both an operating levy and a facility bond, it would not be much of a relief for farmers.

“I do know that it’s going to add dollars to the guy who lives in town that has a $100,000 house because now he’s going to have a levy which would be higher, but maybe that’s one of the reasons we’re looking at it, to level the playing field,” Marlette said.

Board treasurer Tony Dybdahl said he thought it was worth looking at several possibilities.

“It makes sense to run the scenarios and look at them,” Dybdahl said.

In Saturday’s paper, look for different reactions from several residents in the RTR district who recently toured the three current school facilities.