April 1 is no joke for the Linn-Mar Community School District.
That’s the day when voters will get to decide whether to approve a decade-long renewal of the district’s Physical Plant and Equipment Levy (PPEL), beginning July 1, 2015. Part of residents’ property taxes, the $1.34 per $1,000 in taxable valuation collected, resulted in $2.44 million for Linn-Mar during the 2014 fiscal year.
“We feel that by managing the money this way and having it in a fund where code restricts its use, we can do a lot of refurbishing, replacing and generally paying attention to things that have been ignored for years,” Linn-Mar Superintendent Katie Mulholland said.
Three years ago, voters approved doubling the levy rate to $1.34 per $1,000, from 67 cents per $1,000, from July 1, 2011 through June 30, 2015.
Administrators in the Cedar Rapids Community School District hope for a similar fate from its residents, who dealt the school system the opposite result in September 2013 when they rejected the same rate increase – for 10 years beginning July 1, 2015.
Despite that defeat, some school board members already have publicly supported plans to place the same increase for the same amount of time on the ballot this September.
On Feb. 4, voters in the North Linn Community School District turned down a $1.34 per $1,000 10-year PPEL, keeping the school system one of only two Grant Wood Area Education Agency districts without a voter-approved PPEL.
“I just think any time you’re asking for a tax increase, it’s difficult,” said Superintendent Karl Kurt, who is in his first year at North Linn. “It’s probably more difficult in a rural area where you have farmers who would bear a big increase because that tax rate is property.”
Those new approaches include raising awareness not only of the facilities and operations projects awaiting levy dollars for completion, but also of upgrades and maintenance happening as a result of PPEL funds. Board members also suggested an organized committee campaign, with yard signs and parent-teacher association involvement.
Superintendent Tim Cronin of the Central City Community School District attributed the Feb. 4 passage of a PPEL increase there – from 67 cents per $1,000 to $1.34 per $1,000 for 10 years beginning July 1, 2015 – to some of those same tactics.
“Our parent-teacher organization was very helpful in explaining what we wanted to do with the money and at the same time how it wasn’t going to raise their taxes,” said Cronin, who is in his first year at Central City.
The parent-teacher organization designed, printed and sent an informational post card encouraging residents to vote. Some members, such as Cara Brecht, went even further.
“My main focus was there were so many people I know in the district, I know they’re going to overlook their mail,” said Cara Brecht, president of Central City Elementary School’s parent-teacher organization. “So I called to say, don’t forget to go out and vote for it, texting people … .
"I know other PTO officers were trying to do the same.”
They also reached out to voters via Facebook and advised them to direct questions to school board members and administrators.
‘Face to face’
Central City administrators are in the midst of facilities planning and, since fall 2013, Cronin has hosted listening sessions for community members about their visions for district buildings. In his view, those sessions affected the election’s outcome.
“It helped. It probably didn’t help as much getting the word to the key players in the community and then the key players in the community turning around and letting their neighbors know,” Cronin said. “Outside of the PTO, I’d say the message (came) from the board and other staff members going out in the community and talking face to face with people.”
North Linn administrators also held community events during which residents could ask questions about the PPEL and sent two informational mailings as well as writing letters to the local newspaper.
“It’s difficult to get people involved in the process and get them all the information they need to make a decision,” Kurt said. “Their default is to not like increasing taxes, and that’s difficult to overcome without getting engaged in the process.”
Superintendent Kurt said there are still things he’d like to do differently when the district returns to voters with another PPEL question on the ballot, whenever that may be.
“I think getting some community representatives into our facilities planning as we move forward so they can help set the direction of what, when and how we’ll spend that money in a calculated plan,” he said of one new tactic for the future.
Mulholland meets with different groups, including staff and community members, three times each year for discussions about general district issues.
The plan for April is to produce an informational flier, a page of frequently asked questions and their answers on the district website, and a series of short videos online that explain school funding and how PPEL dollars are spent.
In 2011, Linn-Mar administrators asked voters for the maximum PPEL rate for a period of four years, specifically to show that the district would spend the dollars “prudently,” Mulholland said.
“If we could do that, we would come back and ask for 10-year approval, for the maximum,” she said. “For us and our community, it’s a very different approach. We try to work hard and let our patrons know how the money is being spent.
"… It’s very important that our patrons understand how we make decisions.”
‘One size doesn’t fit all’
Another factor to consider in the differing outcomes for Linn-Mar, Central City, North Linn and Cedar Rapids is Linn-Mar and Central City were able to brand the higher PPEL rates as “no-increase increases” because the levy rate was rising but board members worked to lower the overall school district tax rates and thus keep the financial burden equal for residents.
Though the overall school district tax rate had decreased for North Linn last year, Kurt said, the PPEL was still a new tax that would erase some of that overall dip for residents.
“I think any time you can say it’s tax neutral, it definitely helps your cause,” he said. “People tend to forget (past) tax decreases.”
While Superintendent Cronin praised the district’s almost “grassroots” approach of “'you tell five people and each of those people tell five people’ kind of thing,” he acknowledged that he could only speak for Central City and hesitated to tell administrators in other districts how to lobby the community for a PPEL increase.
“One size doesn’t fit all,” Cronin said.
Not for everyone
The Benton and North Linn community school districts are the only two public school districts in the Grant Wood Area Education Agency service area that do not have a voter-approved Physical Plant and Equipment Levy. North Linn voters rejected a proposed levy in February.
Benton Community School District Superintendent Gary Zittergruen said administrators decided not to renew the levy when it expired two years ago because “it was not necessary.” They preferred instead to fund facilities and operations maintenance and upgrades in other ways.
“The district utilizes resources from the statewide sales tax revenues to address infrastructure needs. In this way we are able to build a school budget that does not have an additional tax burden and/or income surtax component,” Zittergruen wrote in an email to The Gazette. “The state sales tax allocation for the school district addresses all of the current infrastructure needs of the district.
"If we were to proceed with a vote on the PPEL, it would have property tax and income surtax implications for patrons of the district. With the statewide sales tax this does not come into play.”
The Benton Community School District does take advantage of the board-approved 33 cents per $1,000 PPEL, which brought the school system $182,601 during the 2014 fiscal year.
A PPEL Primer
Physical Plant and Equipment Levy dollars only can be used for maintenance and upgrades to facilities, technology and transportation. That means no salaries nor benefits.
Iowa school boards can green-light up to 33 cents per $1,000 in PPEL dollars, while the voter-approved maximum is an additional $1.34 per $1,000. The maximum length of time a voter-approved PPEL can be in place is 10 years before it expires and must be renewed.
As of fiscal year 2014, 103 of Iowa’s 346 school districts had voter-approved PPELs.Source: Iowa Department of Education