KIDS chairman plugs referendum at forum

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 29, 1999

If Austin Independent School District voters approve Tuesday’s levy referendum, "the kids will win.

Friday, October 29, 1999

If Austin Independent School District voters approve Tuesday’s levy referendum, "the kids will win."

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That’s the prediction of John O’Rourke, co-chairman of the "Vote ‘YES’ For KIDS (Keep Improving District Schools)" committee.

"If you’re dissatisfied with the school board, then vote them out of office," O’Rourke said, "but don’t take it out on the kids. This referendum needs to pass."

The final public forum on the referendum issue was held Thursday night in council chambers at Austin City Hall. Gordon Harder, the other co-chair of the KIDS committee, was unable to attend.

O’Rourke, the former long-time radio and television newscaster, who became a Riverland Community College teacher and then Austin’s mayor, held court Thursday night.

To be sure, there was not a large crowd present. O’Rourke talked individually with a handful of citizens, answering their questions to the best of his ability.

Early in the evening, three Austin school board candidates were in attendance. Lewis Aase, an incumbent seeking re-election was there as well as challengers Marian Clennon and Arnold Lang.

Voters will be asked to approve a renewal of a levy authorization made in 1995. The current referendum in the amount of $1,289,327 expires after the 2000-2001 school year.

The levy override would bring $1,666,371 into the district’s coffers. Local taxes would amount to $556,614, while state aid to Austin schools would amount to $1,109,757.

O’Rourke and Harder have made 35 appearances before citizens since their effort to win support for the referendum began.

He ticked off the advantages of approving Tuesday’s referendum easily. They included continued low class sizes and expanding course offerings at the middle and high school levels.

Failing to approve the referendum and leveraged over $1 million in state aid with local taxes could mean larger class sizes, fewer course offerings, reducing co-curricular activities, staff reductions and a smaller supply budget, according to O’Rourke.

Just this week, letters to the editor of the Austin Daily Herald have shown wide-spread support for the levy referendum. the Rev. Paul Nelson, senior pastor at St. Augustine Catholic Schools, encouraged its passage. So did Cheryl Dunlap and David Ruzek, co-chairs of the 1995 levy referendum committee and Robert Wangsness, an Ellis Middle School teacher. The most recent letter of endorsement comes from Richard L. Knowlton, an Austin native and the retired chairman of the board, president and CEO of Hormel Foods Corporation.

It was Knowlton who spearheaded efforts to renovate the Austin High School and the district’s elementary school buildings, when a $19.6 million referendum was approved to finance the upgrading of facilities and before the 1995 levy referendum.

Dr. James Hess, the district’s new superintendent, joined O’Rourke and the others for the informal question-and-answer session about Tuesday’s referendum.

O’Rourke stopped short of predicting the referendum would be approved Tuesday and candidly admitted citizens concerns over the apparent mishandling of personnel and fiscal decisions by the incumbent school board has created a climate of distrust in the school district.

"There really haven’t been any outright negative comments about the referendum," he said. "There are concerns about the shortfall, but we have tried to tell them that if we don’t approve this levy referendum, it will be very difficult to do all the good things we are now doing in the classrooms."