?Community conversation? draws about 125 people

Superintendent Steve Noble (foreground) delivers his opening explanation of the current financial challenges in USD 410 at the start of Monday?s gathering. On stage with him is the panel of 24 local leaders.About 125 people turned out on a cold Monday night for a ?Community Conver?sation? sponsored by Unified School District 410 and the city of Hillsboro.

The purpose of the gathering in the high school auditorium was to hear and share ideas about the challenges facing the school district and the city as a whole.

The focus question of the evening was, ?What is import?ant to you about Hillsboro??

On the auditorium stage sat a panel of 24 local leaders that included school board members and administrators, city staff and leaders, county officials, Tabor College admini?strators, Cham?ber of Com?merce board members and the city?s two state legislators, Sen. Jay Emler of Rep. Don Schroeder.

Keith Harder served as the discussion moderator.

Superintendent Steve Noble and Mayor Delores Dalke primed the pump with prepared remarks before opening the microphones to panel members and the people in the seats.

Noble addressed the enrollment decrease of 52 students this fall as a dramatic expression of the enrollment decline the district has experienced since 1998. Then, USD 410 had 760 students enrolled; in 2013, enrollment stands at 528.

With the loss of students comes a loss of state aid, he said, which has been accelerated in recent years by budget cuts in Topeka that have reduced per-pupil aid in 2013 below the levels funded by the state in 2002.

Add to that the rise of expenses. Noble said something that cost $100 in 2002 now costs $132.

Noble said if the state had not cut base state aid and the equalization funds intended to even the playing field for poor districts like USD 410 and the richer urban districts, the district would be receiving $875,000 more per year than it is now.

To compensate for the loss of funding, local districts like USD 410 have had to raise the local mill levy through its local option budget. The most recent increase was 1.7 mills.

In her remarks, Dalke echoed a similar theme about funding cuts by the state since 2005. As a result, local government as had to shoulder more of the funding responsibility for its services and programs.

According to Emler and Schroeder, ?local control? was exactly the intent of lawmakers in Topeka who wanted local governments to pay for more of their programs?even if they were mandated by the state.

Adding to the current economic impact is income tax reduction proposed by the governor and passed by the Legislature in 2012.

The two state legislators said the tax reduction has reduced income to the state to the tune of $300 million for this next year.

Both Emler and Schroeder said they voted against the tax reduction because it was too large; the governor has said positive results from the tax reduction may take three to five years to appear.

?I hope it will work,? Schroeder said of the plan, ?but we?re not seeing any indication of it yet.?

If the local challenges were spelled out clearly, local solutions were more elusive for panelists and community members who spoke up.

Questions were asked about the financial impact of ?virtual schools? and home-schooled children.

One audience member asked whether state aid to public universities could be diverted to K-12 education.

Emler said that is already happening, with the state subsidy falling from 70 percent of tuition to 27 percent in the past 10 to 12 years. He said the state has the authority to cut state funding for public universities, but he didn?t sense legislators had the will to do so.

Near the end of the hour-long session, City Admini?strator Larry Paine attempted to offer a ?note of optimism.?

Acknowledging the current financial challenge in the schools, Paine said ?we are not in a problem area financially? when it comes to the city as a whole.

Citing consistent increases in monthly local sales tax revenue, Paine said, ?Consum?er?ism is in fact alive in Hillsboro. People are buying things and people are selling things.?

He expressed hope for a new hospital ?on the horizon? and said the city?s property-tax mill levy has not varied by three to four mills over the past 10 years.

?As city administrator, I don?t want people here to walk through those doors thinking Hillsboro is going to hell in a handbasket. We?re not.?

The final speaker of the evening?a homeowner in Hillsboro for more than 30 years?said the city is becoming an expensive place to live.

A former teacher, she challenged the district to provide a first-rate education without paying for a weight room, new stadium and other unnecessary facilities.

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