Lindbergh sets tax rate, adheres to longstanding policy

Taxpayers Task Force slated to be formed by school district

By MIKE ANTHONY

In setting the tax rate for the 2007-2008 school year at roughly $3.14 per $100 of assessed valuation, Lindbergh School District officials say they are adhering to a longstanding policy of taking only what’s needed.

The Board of Education voted unanimously last week to approve a tax rate of $3.1485 per $100 for the 2007-2008 school year — slightly less than the 2006-2007 rate of $3.1597 per $100 of assessed valuation. No residents spoke at the Aug. 28 tax-rate hearing.

Of the 2007-2008 tax rate of $3.1485, 38 cents per $100 for debt service remains unchanged from last year.

Lindbergh voters last November approved Proposition R — described by district officials as a $32 million no-tax-rate-increase bond issue. Though the district’s debt-service tax rate is unchanged at 38 cents per $100 of assessed valuation with the passage of Proposition R, it was extended for a six-year period.

Before the board set the tax rate, Superintendent Jim Sandfort and Assistant Superintendent for Finance Pat Lanane presented a historical overview of the district’s finances and announced the formation of a Taxpayers Task Force.

In 1993 after the Legislature adopted the Outstanding Schools Act that included a new funding formula, Sandfort said, “… The district was notified in May that we would need to have a vote of the community in August if we were to retain state funding. It became the origins of the state hold-harmless concept that if the community failed to approve the $2.75 tax rate, then the district would lose its state finances — up to I think it was about $1.8 million — and that would need to be made up locally … There was quite a community discussion. The board at the time promised the community because we had been told by folks from DESE (Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) that if you were to roll it up for one year that you could then roll it back.

“As I mentioned, it was quite a community discussion about the issue. There were people who were skeptical that any Board of Education once getting $2.75 would ever roll it back. Our board promised that they would and the community understood the concept. They understood what was at stake and voted to approve the rollup. It was at that point that Sen. (Harold) Caskey began to make statements on the legislative floor that the Legislature intended that once that tax rate be set at $2.75, it cannot be rolled back — that that was permanent. That was the intent of the Legislature.

“Our Board of Education en masse — all seven members or six members at the time — went to Jeff City. They appeared before the state Board of Education and they argued their case along with one other school district … The decision by the state Board of Education was that a local board could indeed roll back the tax rate once it met the requirements of state law, which was to set it for one year at $2.75. So immediately, the Board of Education rolled the tax levy back to $2.42 and I believe it was one or more of the local papers had a headline: ‘Lindbergh School District keeps its promise.’

“And that was really the start of two operating principles that our board has operated under since that time regarding finances, and one is take only what you need and the other is promise keeping — whatever the board indicates that it will do, it indeed intends to do it that way.”

From the 1994-1995 school year through the 2000-2001 school year, the Board of Education maintained the operating tax rate at $2.42, rolling back 36 cents each year and leaving $25 million in taxes uncollected. The board continued to roll back the operating tax rate in smaller amounts from 2001-2002 through 2004-2005, saving taxpayers an additional $6 million, bringing the total left uncollected to more than $30 million.

Of that more than $30 million, Sandfort said, “… I would dare say that there’s probably no other municipality, no other taxing entity in the state of Missouri that has rolled back an equivalent amount of money for anything comparable to our size school district. I don’t know about larger districts.

“I don’t know about larger taxing entities, but certainly it seems to me a relatively significant step on the part of our board.”

Besides the old funding formula, he discussed the new funding formula, which was upheld in a court ruling last week.

Under the old formula, Lindbergh was a hold-harmless district receiving the last per-pupil allocation in the state. Under the new formula, Senate Bill 287, the district maintains its hold-harmless status and “we continue to receive the fewest dollars proportionally of any school district …,” he said.

Regarding state funding, Sandfort later noted 9.03 percent of the district’s revenue came from the state in 2001-2002. For the current school year, the amount has decreased to 6.35 percent.

Lanane said, “And there would be many districts throughout the state that you would almost reverse that and they would be approaching 90-percent state funding, 10-percent local funding …”

Sandfort said, “In the words of Ross Perot, that would be a giant sucking sound moving from Lindbergh School District to Jeff City and not to be returned.”

The impact of tax-increment financing, or TIF, districts on Lindbergh finances also was discussed, with the TIF revenue loss to the district for 2007-2008 totaling $1.7 million, which is equivalent to 35 teachers.

As for the district’s tax rate, the operating tax rate of roughly $2.75 is tied for the fourth lowest in the state of 522 districts for the past school year while the total tax rate is the second lowest in St. Louis County after the Ladue School District.

Regarding the Taxpayers Task Force, Lanane said, “… We will be advertising and asking for volunteers in the community to serve on a Taxpayers Task Force and we’re going to encourage people to volunteer who really are not the choir. People who really are not directly connected to the district any more. We think it’s important to get people on fixed incomes so we can get their opinion and hear what they have to say, and we can also have a two-way communication about what the needs of the district are.

“Also, I’m going to invite some community leaders because I think they have a stake in this and try to involve them in the process. We’re going to look at a variety of issues. One will be where does the money go in a school district? What is it spent on? How is it spent? Why is it necessary? Are there ways that they might suggest that we could find savings?

“But also I want to take on this whole issue of how can we coexist really with the people on fixed incomes … We need to find a way that we can find some relief for them. Most of the people tell us how proud they are of the district, but they are just strapped when it comes to finding revenue to pay for increased taxes. So we think there’s a way to do this. We think there’s some ideas and then at that point once we can come up with kind of a big idea, we want to involve our local legislators and invite them to listen to what we have to say in terms of a solution …,” he said.