The time has come. 

Not that anyone in the Union Community School District is celebrating this fact, mind you. Truth be told, it’s a harsh reality all property owners eventually face. Buildings age. Roofs weather. Equipment wears out.  The challenge before the Union Community Schools’ Board of Directors is much like the one homeowners must contend with, only on a much larger scale: How does the district plan for the capital expenses associated with maintaining the facilities and grounds for which they are responsible?

When voters in the school district go to the polls next month, they will have the opportunity to help answer that question. In addition to electing four of the seven members that will comprise the Union School Board, voters will be asked to consider Union Public Measure B, a referendum that would authorize the district to levy property taxes that would generate funding solely for the purpose of maintaining its buildings, grounds and equipment. 

The Physical Plant and Equipment Levy (PPEL) is not a new concept. In fact, PPEL has been part of the property taxes that Union Community Schools have levied for many, many years. The PPEL question is being brought to the voters at this time because the School Board is asking for the ability to increase the levy beyond the amount that can be assessed to taxpayers without a referendum.  Even with the existing PPEL rate that Union has levied (33 cents per one thousand dollars of assessed valuation), the district’s taxpayers still enjoy one of the lower school property tax rates in the state, as Union ranks in the bottom third of Iowa’s 360 school districts.

“The district has always been very conscious about respecting the tax rate,” Union Superintendent Travis Fleshner stated.

“What we are looking for is an incremental way to take care of some sustainability and maintenance factors in our buildings,” he added.

Passage of Public Measure B would provide the School Board with the incremental funding the district is looking for, setting a PPEL levy no higher than $1.34 per one thousand dollars of assessed valuation on an annual basis over a period of ten years. What does that mean? Each year, beginning with the 2019-20 school year, the PPEL levy would be set by the School Board in April, when the district’s budget is certified. The amount of the levy could change from year to year, depending on the amount of revenue needed by the district, never to exceed the level capped at $1.34. Given the district’s commitment to minimal tax increases over the years, asking the voters to approve the levy is an important part of a proactive plan the district is developing to address future maintenance and facility needs. The need to secure a funding source the district can rely on in the coming years is tied directly to student enrollment.

Declining Enrollment

In the past eight years, the certified enrollment at Union Community Schools has been in steady decline, dropping more than 170 students. As the district prepares for the launch of a new school year, it appears that trend will continue in 2017-18. There is a sharp decline in the number of incoming kindergarten students anticipated for the upcoming school year, as compared to the number of seniors who graduated last year, a difference of some 50 fewer.  Given that school funding is doled out on a per-pupil basis, the difference of 170 students in 2017 amounts to $1,147,500 in lost state aid. Yet the district remains financially sound, thanks to forward-thinking leadership and a Board of Directors committed to operating in a financially responsible manner. It’s a commitment where difficult decisions have been needed and made, resulting in the pain of belt-tightening measures being felt in virtually every area of school operations.  

Staff Reductions 

With approximately 80% of the school district’s budget tied to the salaries and benefits of its employees, reducing the number of staff members can have the greatest impact on an organization’s bottom line. In recent years, strategic decision-making focused on making the district more efficient has helped Union minimize laying personnel off. However, from custodian, cook and bus driver to teachers and administrators, the district has been successful in reducing its number of employees by way of attrition in recent years. As staff members have retired or left the district for other employment, their positions have been carefully evaluated and, where possible, eliminated, if those duties could reasonably be reassigned to other employees. Doing more with less has become evident in all areas of the dictrict’s operations.

Administration

At the administrative level, the departure in 2016 of Dysart-Geneseo Elementary School Principal David Hill, who is now the Superintendent at North Tama and Gladbrook-Reinbeck school districts, resulted in a cost savings when his duties were reassigned to other administrators in the district instead of hiring a replacement. 

Certified Staff 

The 2017-18 school year will be the second consecutive year where the guidance counselor position will be shared by the elementary schools in La Porte City and Dysart. This year, the sharing of teaching positions between the schools will be expanded to include the music and physical education programs, as well. At Union Middle School where there are 40 fewer students than in previous years, the district is taking advantage of the state’s outreach operational sharing program to provide counseling services at a significant savings. 

Transportation

Perhaps some of the greatest changes in school operations can be seen in the transportation department, where the number of bus routes have been reduced and consolidated. Fewer vehicles on the road also allowed the district to hold off on purchasing a new bus last year, and with it an expense of around $100,000. Rather than employ full-time mechanics in both La Porte City and Dysart, the district now outsources some of their automotive work to local mechanics in both communities.

Classified Staff

The district continues to assess and restructure hours for its classified staff, meaning the food service program, custodial staff and building secretaries have seen changes to their duties, as well.

Schools throughout the state of Iowa, where the increase in state funding for education is limited to one percent growth, are striving to maintain quality educational programs in challenging economic times. As the Union Community School District plans for the future, the knowledge that each of its buildings will require significant capital investments in order to be maintained is a matter of when, not if. 

Next Week: What is a Physical Plant and Equipment Levy and what exactly can it be used for? How much revenue would such a levy generate for Union Community Schools? What are the future maintenance and facility issues the Union Board of Directors are making plans to address?