School district to ask voters for increase

Published 8:26 am Thursday, August 20, 2009

If a school levy operating referendum is approved this fall, it would cost an owner of a $100,000 home an additional $84 per year.

Austin Public Schools will be asking voters for a $226.79 increase per pupil Nov. 3.

The school board approved Wednesday to revoke and then roll two of its three levy operating referendums together for a total of $531.32 per pupil, or $1.09 million per year. Although the first referendum expires in November 2010 and the second in November 2011, the district wants to prepare in the case voters do not approve it this fall; they can return for a vote the following year.

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A 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 freeze in funding at the state level has left districts grasping for ways to generate revenue. The district’s three referendums combined generate more than $3.5 million per year, which is less than the state average.

The district is rolling two of its three referendums into one; the first ($53.35 per pupil) expires in November 2010 and the second ($251.18 per pupil) expires in November 2011. Instead of asking for a renewal at $304.53, the district is asking voters for $531.32 per pupil. It would generate $1.09 million in revenue for the district per year.

The maximum amount the state allows a district to ask for is $1,571.43 per pupil.

On a $100,000 Austin home (the average value), the levy referendum would cost a homeowner an additional $84 per year.

The school board has approved asking for voters for an increase to compensate for a legislative freeze in funding for 2010-2011 and 2011-2012. Officials say this would prevent program cuts if approved.

Lori Volz, director of finance and operations, said the state allows districts to ask for as much as $1,571.43 per pupil — more than $1,000 than what Austin is requesting.

“That fact that Austin Public Schools has an operating referendum of $3.5 million on an annual basis, we are below the state average,” Volz said. “This is a minimum.”

The $3.5 million includes $1.6 million in state aid and $1.9 million of local levy. Without voter approval, the district would lose their portion of state aid.

The district surveyed 400 voters in July, and took their opinions into consideration when making their decision Wednesday. A consulting firm averaged what voters said they would be willing to approve.

Currently, the district has a balanced budget. However, if the referendum is not approved, they will be forced to cut programs, which includes staff, because of inflationary costs.

“The district would start making plans for budget cuts of about $1 million,” Volz said.

As for the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 biennium, the legislature’s plans are still unknown.

“We do expect there will continue to be a financial challenge,” Volz said.

Superintendent David Krenz is not optimistic. He pointed out the district may have a break-even budget, but that is after $600,000 in cuts.

“There could be another freeze in the next biennium, even cuts,” Krenz said.

The district’s third operating referendum — $415 per pupil unit — generates $2.07 million per year. Its last date for renewal is November 2013. Volz said it will be “addressed down the road.”

The school board unanimously approved the referendum increase, with board members Diana Wangsness and Curt Rude absent.