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GF School District to cut mill levy

Taxpayers in the Grand Forks Public School District will see a big decrease in their school-related property taxes because of a big shot of added state aid to local schools.

Taxpayers in the Grand Forks Public School District will see a big decrease in their school-related property taxes because of a big shot of added state aid to local schools.

The state is giving "mill levy reduction grants" to school districts for the next school year as a part of spending surplus that has come into state coffers from big years in oil and agriculture. The Grand Forks School District will get $10.8 million in such a levy grant, and in return must cut its own local property tax levy 75 mills, from about 198 mills to 123 mills, which will amount to about $10 million, said Bill Hutchison, the district's business manager. In addition, state foundation aid to the district will show a net increase of $568,000 next year.

The big injection of added state revenues to the district next year will mean $450 less in property taxes on the median-value house of about $135,000, Hutchison said.

The board also took action on approving several projects to take advantage of $10.8 million in federal stimulus dollars coming to the District over the next two years for one-time building or instructional improvements. The money can't be used to start projects or programs which must then be "sustained" after the federal money is spent, Superintendent Larry Nybladh told the board. But it's to be used on items that are ready to go to "stimulate" the economy and must be geared to improve education somehow. Such spending can include fixing roofs and windows, as well as lowering class size and teacher training.

Almost all the federal stimulus money should be in district coffers by Christmas, but can be spent over two years, Hutchison said. It will be a big boost in funding for projects the District already planned and needed to do, he said.

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That's despite a decrease of about $100,000 in federal impact aid to the district because of falling enrollment in the two schools on the Grand Forks Air Force Base, as a number of active duty personnel decline as part of a realignment of the base's mission.

The School Board will give final approval to the District's budget for the 2009-2010 fiscal year in September.

The district's budget has gone from $69.4 million in 2007-08, to a projected $73.1 million for the 2009-10 fiscal year.

Not even counting the bonus of federal stimulus dollars in the pipeline, the shift in state funding means a lot less burden on local taxpayers next year. The share of local taxes to the district's revenue goes down to $25.7 million, from $36 million this year; meanwhile, the state's share of the district's revenue goes as high as $38.5 million, from $27 million this year; that's 52 percent of the total budget.

Labor costs, including salaries and benefits of employees, make up almost 85 percent of the district's spending, Hutchison said.

The board met in closed session Monday night to discuss negotiating strategy for upcoming contract talks with teachers. Earlier Monday, teachers' representatives met in the same district headquarters discussing their own strategy.

The district has about 690 teachers and a couple dozen administrators.

Hutchison said the proposed budget for next year includes cutting 15 positions, all through attrition; 13 teaching positions and two administrators. It's part of "right-sizing" the teaching staff in light of falling enrollment, he told the board. The district has a high ratio of teachers to students, 1 to 10, compared with 1 to 12 or lower in other districts in the state, Hutchison said.

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Next fall, the district will have the lowest number of students since 1961, according to Superintendent Nybladh's projections.

Since May 1996, the district has declined 30 percent in its student population, to 6,795 when the school year ended last month, according to figures provided by the district. That's a loss of 229 students just in the past year.

Nybladh expects 6,808 students to start school in August, which will be about 100 fewer than what is expected in the West Fargo district, now the state's third largest school district behind Bismarck, which has 10,700, and Fargo, which has about 10,300.

The nine-member School Board on Monday also unanimously approved the appointment of three principals, all from inside the district, to fill vacant slots.

Longtime district teacher and administrator Buck Kasowski was approved as new principal at Central High School. He replaces Jeff Schatz, who has been Central's principal since 1998 but was hired this spring to be the first principal of Fargo's new Davies High School.

Terry Bohan was approved as principal of Community High School, where he has been an assistant principal.

Eric Ripley, who has been an assistant in the department, was named coordinator of Career and Technical Education for the district.

District officials changed the job, as part of downsizing, to include different duties and changed the title from director to coordinator.

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The board also heard a report that 32 students dropped out during the past school year, the highest number in five years, but still less than 1 percent of the total students in grades six through 12, Assistant Superintendent Jody Thompson said.

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send e-mail to slee@gfherald.com .

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