ROCHESTER — Although Rochester Public Schools has focused on educating voters on its technology tax proposal, city education officials have also begun thinking about a possible financial safety net if their campaign in favor of the technology tax fails at the polls.
This strategy is based on an existing operating levy that the district implemented in 2015. With a lifespan of 10 years, district leaders know they must renew this levy before it expires in 2025. However, they expect to do so until they see the results of the tech tax in November.
In other words, the fate of one levy will depend on how receptive voters are to the other.
“We will make a decision regarding our existing operating tax based on what happens regarding the technology tax,” Superintendent Kent Pekel said.
The proposed technology tax would raise $10 million annually for technology-related needs. However, it would also free up $7 million per year that the district already spends on technology, which would also boost the district’s needs outside of technology. Earlier this year, the district approved a spending budget of more than $390 million.
The school district could renew existing operating fees at the same amount without having to seek voter approval. That’s because this year the state Legislature gave school districts the authority to do so once.
Existing operating costs represent $17 million per year for the school district. So at the very least, RPS will probably renew it. This was made clear in documentation from the July 25 school board meeting:
“It is vitally important that the RPS extends or increases its current operating levy before it expires in 2025.”
Losing $17 million a year would only worsen the district’s financial situation. Over the past two years, it has cut its budget by $21 million and recently announced that it was planning a nearly 30% increase in its transportation costs.
On the other hand, the district is also expected to receive an increase in state funding to the tune of $14.6 million in 2023-24, followed by an even larger increase the following year. Among other designated uses, such as American Indian education and services to English learners, the new funding for 2023-24 will include more than $5 million for general education and more than $7 million for dollars for special education.
The district also has the option to ask voters to increase the operating levy. But unlike simply renewing at the existing financial level, the district would have to get voter approval to increase it.
There have been many comments on the merits of the proposed technology tax in the public sphere. Letters to the editor were written for and against the proposal. Institutions like the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce have spoken out on the subject.
Comment aside, the district has already done the initial groundwork to determine how receptive voters would be to an operating tax increase if the technology tax were not passed. From May 22 to June 2, the school district conducted a survey of 400 registered voters.
If the survey results provide an accurate indication of voter turnout, the district has a good chance of passing the technology tax. According to the survey, when asked if they would support raising taxes to support a technology tax, 56% of respondents said yes. Only 24% said they would actively oppose it, and 20% said they had no opinion.
However, if the technology tax were to fail, the district also has reason to believe it would be able to pass on an increase in the operating tax. According to the same survey, 59% of those questioned said they were in favor of an increase in the operating contribution, 20% had no opinion and 21% said they were opposed to it.
An interesting feature of the survey is that it also asked respondents how they would react if both questions were placed on the ballot: increasing the existing operations tax and approving the technology tax.
In response to this question, 57% of respondents said they would support both proposals in the ballot.
Although the survey gauged voters’ receptiveness to the idea, it seems unlikely the district would pursue both options. One reason is that the ballot language approved by the district for November only asks voters about the technology tax, not the operations tax.
Pekel said including a question like that is standard practice for surveys. He added that while it’s impossible to know what unforeseen circumstances might arise, the school district has no plans to increase the operating tax if voters approve the technology tax in November.
“I think it would be very, very unlikely for us – if the technology tax passes – to ask for an increase in the operating tax,” Pekel said. “It is very unlikely that I would recommend this to the school board.”