December 04, 2023

Results of Newton public measure gives school board less configuration options

Voters pass PPEL levy but say no to increased debt service levy

Newton Superintendent Tom Messinger speaks with board members at a past school board meeting at the E.J.H. Beard Administration Center. Two public measures were put on ballots, but only one passed. The result of the one not passing will effect the options school board members have when it comes to deciding which schools to remodel and reconfigure.

Two public measures for Newton Community School District were on the ballot this past Election Day. Unofficial results show one passed; the other did not.

Superintendent Tom Messinger is disappointed the $4.05 debt service levy did not pass, with 1,176 voting yes and 1,809 voting no. If it had passed, it would have given the district the authority to levy more money from taxpayers to pay off debt, an inevitability with the proposed configurations to elementary buildings.

Currently, the debt service levy is set at a maximum of $2.70 per $1,000 of assessed value of the taxable property within the district, but the school is not collecting the full amount. In addition to being able to pay off debt, the school would also have been table to take on more debt to address its facility needs.

“We have a tremendous amount of needs that have been identified within our buildings,” Messinger said. “That’s part of the process we’ve been going through. Without the ability down the road to levy more for general obligation bonds, we’re tied just to our sales tax or our revenue bonds.”

Shifting down to two elementary buildings as a result of the configuration will use up a majority of revenue bonds available. Which means Newton will have to wait more time to be able to address infrastructure/building needs at the high school. Messinger stressed the $4.05 levy was not on the ballot to raise taxes.

“It was to give the board the ability to look at different options,” Messinger said. “What we all have to keep in mind is that even if the board has the ability to do that, what that means is we would still have to go to the taxpayers to get permission to do projects that require general obligation bonds.”

Newton schools no longer has that ability to go to taxpayers to ask permission to bond for the upcoming facilities work. Unless it gets put back on a ballot.

However, Messinger told Newton News the most important public measure did pass: the $1.34 Physical Plant & Equipment Levy (PPEL). Unofficial results from the auditor’s office show the public measure narrowly passed with 1,547 votes in favor (51.62 percent) and 1,450 votes against (48.38 percent).

“To be honest with you, that’s the one that we would have struggled more without,” he said. “That provides buses, computers, some of our general maintenance needs. It takes care of a lot of things that if we didn’t have that it would really make things difficult on us. That was the bigger one.”

Messinger said Newton schools remains committed to protecting property tax dollars, though he noted the district has no control over the assessed valuations.

“But we do have some control over the different levies,” he added. “We’re extremely thankful the voters continued that (PPEL). This was not new. It was to renew and to give us the ability to renew at a higher rate. We can still work to level out the overall tax levy. But losing the $4.05 is a disappointment.”

It will force the school board and administrators to scrutinize or look more closely at building improvements, and it could “push some things back.” For instance, Newton does not have the ability to make improvements to the high school that administrators know need to be addressed.

While it is not the end of the world, it is going to delay potential upgrades.

“But the configuration can be done without the $4.05.”

Some master planning options provided to school board members would not require a general obligation bond, like the action that was passed at the Oct. 23 school board meeting: Remodeling Thomas Jefferson into a preK-1 building while Emerson Hough is remodeled into a grades 2-4 building for $21.3 million.

Kristina Meyer, who was voted into the Newton school board this past election, said while she is excited about the opportunity to serve, she expressed her dismay the the $4.05 levy did not pass.

“I’m disappointed to hear that the $4.05 didn’t pass,” Meyer said. “This will make building improvements more challenging in the future.”

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.