By Adelle Whitefoot
The Duluth school district is in a good position to not only renew its current operating levy but also to ask for an increase, according to a phone survey.
The district contracted out to Minneapolis-based Morris Leatherman Company to conduct a phone survey regarding a possible referendum on the November ballot. The company surveyed 625 residents across the district asking them 66 questions each. Of the 625 respondents, 15 percent said they have preschoolers and 22 percent said they have children in the district.
Peter Leatherman, who gave a presentation to the Duluth School Board Thursday, said 625 gives them a plus or minus error of 4 percent in 95 out of 100 cases.
“Now with the 95 out of 100 cases that is the percent chance that you would have an unrepresentative sample,” he said. “We can feel very comfortable with the sample because we go through a series of demographics with the folks at the end of the survey.”
The results of the phone survey showed 81 percent of the respondents would be in favor of renewing the current district levy — which is set to expire after the 2018-2019 school year — and 16 percent opposed the renewal.
Leatherman said respondents were told the operating levy makes up about 3 percent of the district budget and losing it could affect programs and class sizes.
The company also asked people if they would support a property tax increase. Results showed 25 percent said they would be for any increase, 51 percent said they would be for some and 21 percent said they would be against any increase. This is a big change from five years ago when a similar survey was conducted in Duluth, Leatherman said.
“Five years ago, 37 percent said they were against any property tax increase, 13 percent said they were for it,” he said.
The survey also asked respondents how much of an increase they would be for. Leatherman said the sweet spot was about a $10 per month increase on property taxes. When asked if they would support an addition $575 per pupil unit increase for 10 years, 58 percent said they would support it and 32 percent said they were opposed.
Leatherman said respondents were told this would equal about a $9 per month increase for a $150,000 home and a $15 increase on a $250,000 home as well as that it would give the district an additional $5 million per year.
Class sizes biggest issue
Survey results consistently showed class size as the biggest issue for those who responded. When asked what the most serious issue facing the district, large class sizes was the No. 1 issue at 16 percent, while lack of funding was second at 15 percent.
People were also asked if they thought class sizes at each level needed to be lower, higher or were the right amount.
“We went through each of the school levels and told people what the average class size was, so they were reacting to a number, not a perception,” Leatherman said of the question asked.
According to Leatherman, people were told the average class size was 25 students in elementary schools, 29 students in the middle school core classes and 30 students in the high school core classes.
The responses showed at the elementary level that 43 percent thought the class size should be lower and 55 percent thought it was the right amount. At the middle school level, 57 percent thought the number should be lower and 42 percent thought it was the right amount. At the high school level, 59 percent thought the number should be lower and 38 percent thought it was the right amount.
“So the concern here in the district is the secondary level class sizes,” Leatherman said. “It really is a big issue but people are willing to give tax dollars to the district for that purpose.”
According to the survey, 73 percent were in support of a property tax increase to help fund lower high school class sizes with 43 percent of them saying they strongly support it.
The survey also showed 72 percent of people in support of a property tax increase to help fund expansion of early childhood programs, update technology infrastructure and a change in high school schedules to allow students more flexibility.
“All of these (including class sizes) are so well regarded that people will support a referendum, even at a higher dollar amount,” Leatherman said.
The district must decide by mid-August whether or not to will ask for an increase to the current operating levy on the November ballot — and how much that increase would be. It is expected that the district will ask for the renewal of the current operating levy that was last approved by voters in 2013.