School levy vote passes in New Prague

Voters in the New Prague Area School District overwhelmingly passed a $246.70 per student operating levy increase during a special election Tuesday, Nov. 7. 
With 2,796 voters casting ballots, the totals were 1,655 yes and 1,141 no, or 59.2 percent of voters approving the ballot question. 
Four of the five precincts had reported by 8:45 p.m. The vote was relatively close until the New Prague precinct results came in. That precinct, which includes voters in the city of New Prague and in Belle Plaine, Lanesburgh and Derrynane townships, had 1004 yes votes and 486 no votes. With only the Lonsdale precinct remaining, the results were assured to be in favor of the levy. Those results came in shortly before 9 p.m. 
“Praise the Lord,” Superintendent Tim Dittberner said when informed of the news. “We’ve got great communities and they support education. That’s why I live and work in this community - people get it. When there’s a need, they’ll support it. 
“This truly was a need, not a want,” he added. 
Dittberner had a sheet showing the history of operating levy elections in the district since 1991. The district previously had asked seven levy questions, with five of those passing. Of those that failed, one was in 2002 with a proposal for 10 years. That gathered just 38 percent of the vote. The next year, the district asked a two-question levy, with the first, larger one passing with 59 percent and the second, smaller one failing with just under 50 percent. The last two votes were approved, in 2007 and 2011, for 55 and 57 percent respectively. 
The operating levy replaces the 2011 voter approved levy, which expires at the end of the current school year. That levy is for $146.70. The district would have lost about $600,000 in revenue per year if the levy had not been renewed. The New Prague Area School board added $100 to the amount to account for inflation. Over the course of the past five years under the current levy, the district’s fund balance first grew, peaking two years ago and then began to drop. The added funds will provide not only the current $600,000, but about $400,000 in additional revenue beginning with the 2018-19 school year. 
Even with the increase, New Prague’s operating levy remains under the state average and is in the middle range among 10 comparable school districts. 
Throughout the levy process, Dittberner and board members emphasized that the added funding was not for any new programming or staffing, nor was it to operate the new Aquatic Center, as some opponents suggested. The amount was what the board decided was needed to maintain current programming and staffing at the present levels for the next six years. 
Turnout was strong throughout the day at the five precincts, and that made for some nervousness among board members. With the levy question the only thing on the ballot, board member Jerry Walerius said he had an uneasy feeling, even after the first two precincts reported in favor of the question. 
Dittberner said the main concern was the timing of the question. “They levy came up, and this was the only time we could ask for the funding,” he said. “It comes a little more than two years after the district approved the bond referendum, and that made some people nervous.”