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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Building project spikes property tax levy in Ely

Keith Vandervort
Posted 12/16/20

ELY – ISD 696 School Board members approved the 2021 property tax levy Monday night that shows a 32-percent increase over last year’s levy. The 2021 levy of $2,373,475 is an increase of …

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Building project spikes property tax levy in Ely

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ELY – ISD 696 School Board members approved the 2021 property tax levy Monday night that shows a 32-percent increase over last year’s levy. The 2021 levy of $2,373,475 is an increase of $576,411 over the 2020 levy of $1,797,064.
District voters approved a $10 million bond in August to help finance a $20 million school building renovation project. Construction is expected to start in the spring.
No taxpayers participated in Monday’s truth-in-taxation public hearing that preceded the board’s unanimous approval of the levy.
Superintendent Erik Erie noted that just 20 percent of the total district revenue for the $8.9 million budget for 2020-2021 comes from the property tax levy. About two-thirds of the district’s revenue, $5,947,131, comes from state sources, and about four percent, $358,390, comes from federal sources.
The status of the current year’s budget shows that as of Monday’s meeting expenditures exceed revenues. Erie explained that unanticipated COVID-19 expenditures since March have been more than receipts from relief sources like the CARES Act and state and county grants.
He spelled out the budget revisions for school board members. Revenue of $230,326 came from a variety of sources, including $87,517 from the federal CARES Act. An additional $6,986 came from the state.
“The Coronavirus Relief Fund of $142,054 was designated for the purchase of Chromebooks for our one-to-one initiative,” Erie said.
“A grant of $76,700 from St. Louis County was just approved,” he added. “I want to thank (County Commissioner) Paul McDonald for helping to move that through.”
An unanticipated decrease in student enrollment resulted in a revenue decrease of more than $80,000.
“This is all part of how COVID impacted us and the budget,” Erie said. “The decrease of 15 students, related to COVID, is also an impact on revenue.”
Budget revisions on the expense side related to COVID total almost $300,000 this year. Supplies for cleaning and sanitizing on campus, in the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 budgets, add up to nearly $64,000. Additional work hours for supervision, custodian, school nurse and information technology account for an additional $142,000. An additional elementary teacher added $80,000 in expenses, and additional advertising costs of nearly $14,000 were also included in the budget revision.
“We also saved some money on substitute teachers (about $14,000) that is related to COVID,” Erie said.
“We are not done with everything, but this is what we are projecting,” Erie added. “We are looking at about $56,000 in expenses over revenues because of COVID.”
He compared the local levy from 2020 to 2021, from $781,930 to $1,265,744, an increase of $483,815. “That is directly tied to the debt service from the voter-approved bonding referendum for the school facility project that was passed in August,” he said.
That debt will be paid off over the next 20 years. According to the district, the owner of a $100,000 homestead residential property can expect to pay an additional $54 per year in school property taxes.
Taconite production credits from 2020 to 2021 increased from $70,593 to $91,806.
“That helps with our levy and reduces our taxpayer obligation,” Erie said. “It is not necessarily additional revenue, but it reduces the levy or replaces the revenue that would have been collected from property taxes.”
The production credits are based on the local mines’ prior three years of taconite production. Compared to other school districts on the Iron Range, Ely remains at the bottom of all the other school districts, Erie said.
“The place where mining really started in this area is getting the least from the production,” he said. “We have (Costin Group lobbyists) Gary Cerkvenik and Jeff Anderson working on this and they have a plan. We are working on how we can help our community with this.”
Volleyball coaching compensation
The board narrowly approved full pay for girls volleyball coaches for a season cut short by COVID-19 restrictions, contrary to a memorandum of understanding approved and signed in October that called for coaches to receive proportional pay based on the length of the season.
The recommendation for full pay from Athletic Director Tom Coombe was supported by Erie and passed on a 3-2 vote.
The girls volleyball season across the state ended about a week early due to COVID-19 restrictions put in place by Gov. Tim Walz just before Thanksgiving.
“We had about eight-ninths of a season,” Erie said. “It was so close (to a complete season) that we are recommending full compensation. The coaches put themselves out there. Our principals were worried because these coaches are also teachers. They took safety precautions and worked under really difficult circumstances.”
Coombe added that the volleyball team completed 12 of 14 games. “It would have come down to just one more game left, but because of another school’s COVID issue, we ended up with two games remaining,” he said.
In two more days, the regular season would have been over. The coaching agreement letter called for pay at 75 percent if the season was not completed. Head Coach Andrea Thomas would have lost $1,000 in gross wages and assistant Megan Wognum would have lost $700 if the district stayed with the agreement, according to Coombe.
“They were a heck of a lot closer to the 100-percent marker than they were to the 75 percent marker,” he said.
Coombe also noted that the coaches were required to drive themselves to road games because COVID-19 protocols did not allow them to be on the bus with the team. Coaches were required to conduct daily temperature checks and health screenings for all players and additional cleaning and sanitizing of equipment.
“I just think this is the right thing to do,” he said. “The coaches put themselves out there for the team. The season ended early through no fault of the coaches. I just think they should get their full compensation. In my judgment and opinion, they earned and deserve full compensation rather than be penalized for a decision not of their own making.”
James Pointer, who did not seek re-election and was participating in his last regular school board meeting, took issue with the request.
“We signed an MOU (memo of understanding). The teacher union signed off on it as well. They knew going in that if there was no season, they would still get 25 percent of their salary. They knew they were going to get 100 percent salary even if the full season was shortened,” he said. “We should look at this as a learning experience and move on.” He objected to changing the signed agreement.
Heidi Mann, who also did not seek re-election and was also participating in her last regular school board meeting, said, “I’m in much the same place as Mr. Pointer. The coaches went above and beyond, but that is what everybody is doing right now. The wording of the MOU binds us, in my opinion, to pay them at 75 percent.”
Pointer and Mann voted against the motion. School board members Ray Marsnik, Tony Colarich and Tom Omerza voted to pay the coaches 100 percent compensation. Rochelle Sjoberg was absent from the meeting.
Other business
In other action, school board members:
• Formally accepted the resignations of head football coach Cory Lassi and head softball coach Tom McDonald, effective immediately.
• Accepted the resignation of Dawn Anderson from the Indian Education Home/School Liaison position, effective Dec. 22.
• Hired Kaylor Nicolson as a paraprofessional.
• Hired Heidi Omerza for the full-time, long-term third-grade teacher position from Nov. 23 to Jan. 3, 2021, and the full-time, long-term high school special education teacher position from Jan. 4 to Feb. 19.
• Approved the following coaching positions – Tait Carlson, volunteer assistant hockey, Mike Keller, junior high boys basketball, and Jen Zgonc and Erin Lowe, junior high girls basketball.
• Approved the World’s Best Workforce Report and Summary as presented.
• Adopted the maximum U.S. General Services Administration Per Diem Rates for meal reimbursement and lodging rates for all district employee travel.

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