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GMR community denies education again: Operating levy vote fails

GMR District residents would have another opportunity to vote on increasing the taxes they give to their local school during this year’s General Election on November 3.

On this year’s ballot, district residents had the chance to approve revoking its current $506.05 per pupil operating levy and replacing it with a $1,306.05 per pupil operating levy that would last ten years starting with taxes payable 2021. It would increase with the rate of inflation and generate nearly $221,000 in additional revenue annually. For a fourth straight election dating back to 2015, GMR residents denied the district of increased tax-generated funding. This year’s operating levy failed with 864 (55.67%) “no” votes to 688 (44.53%) “yes” votes.

“I was disappointed, obviously, but I respect the results of the election,” GMR Superintendent Larry Guggisberg said. “As a school, we just have to accept that and move forward and work hard to continue to best serve our students in these ever changing times.”

Two factors played a role in the district pursuing this levy in the first place: decreased enrollment and state aid.

The GMR District enrollment sat at 480 during the 2007-08 school year and, as of October 1, 2020, sits at 242, according to the October 19, 2020 GMR School Board agenda. Since the 2014-15 school year, the district’s enrollment has dropped 181 students— from 423 to its current 242 mark. Its recent drop over the last five years or so, Guggisberg explained, put GMR in a difficult financial situation, one seeing the district in a $545,371 projected deficit, according to the estimated 2020-21 school budget approved at the board’s July 20, 2020 meeting.

As for state aid, Guggisberg pointed out how state aid associated with school funding has not kept up with the inflation rate.

“Those two things (enrollment and state aid) combined together have resulted in a financial position where the district over the last couple of years is deficit spending,” Guggisberg said. “And it’s been using its reserves to keep it going. But… you don’t have reserves for an extended period of time.”

The funds from this levy would have went towards reducing that deficit. As Guggisberg has said numerous times, this levy was not the “panacea” to the district’s financial situation.

“Those referendum dollars would have been used to reduce our deficit for current expenditures that we have to the operations of our school,” Guggisberg said, “along with doing some budget reductions that would have reduced to get the deficit (down) even more.”

As for another chance at the ballot box to pass a funding question, the district has one more opportunity before its current levy expires, Guggisberg explained. It may have to possibly look at two questions: one, would one agree to renew its current levy— guaranteeing a flow of additional funds— and, two, if the renewal passes, would one agree to a different or increased levy amount.

“A two-question ballot gives what we would consider a more of a guarantee and then the second question would give (an) additional amount if approved (by voters),” Guggisberg said. “But again, that (two-question ballot) would have to be approved by the board, and that approval… has to happen in mid-August 2021.”

The earliest the district could have any funding question on a ballot is November 2, 2021.

This most recent funding denial by the district, follows a string of denials in recent years at the ballot box. In 2015, the district renewed its current five-year levy and voted down building bonds for a new school near the Greenbush area. Since then, the district has run a couple revoke and replace questions for increased operating referendums and a capital project levy question on ballots, but all have failed.

In 2016, the district voted down revoking the existing referendum and replacing it with a new one that would have provided the district with $632,831 in additional revenue annually for five years. In 2017, the district voted down revoking the existing operating referendum with a new referendum that would have generated approximately $400,000 annually over 10 years. On this same ballot, it also voted down a capital project levy that would have generated $400,000 for 10 years.

Guggisberg responded when asked about the morale at the school following this most recent disapproval at the polls.

“Our staff has been working hard to support our students and our families during the coronavirus with the extra time and things that they’ve done,” Guggisberg said. “And they, I would say… it’s (this vote outcome) disappointing for them.”

Guggisberg didn’t consider himself a social media person, but said he had been told of people on social media also expressing disappointment. Despite that, Guggisberg said the message to his staff will be to continue doing what it has been doing: their job.

“We have to move on and our teachers will continue to work hard,” Guggisberg said. “In spite of the lack of support from the majority of the voters, our teachers will work hard to continue to provide quality opportunities for our kids in school, as well as promote the highest character of our students and have a positive visibility in the community, but I can’t sugarcoat it. They’re disappointed.”

It also, as a district, will have to communicate with its public the importance of school and its programs and activities, Guggisberg said, and convince voters that a referendum is important during what he considered a kind of “do or die situation” next year.

To see the complete story, read the November 11 issue of The Tribune in print or online.

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