Austin school leaders talk operating levies with voters

Published 7:55 am Wednesday, October 13, 2010

As Austin Public Schools Superintendent David Krenz gave a presentation before members of the Southeast Minnesota Association of Realtors Tuesday, he made sure to let them know how critical levies are to the school district. Over the past eight years, Krenz said the school district has received new revenue — more money than they would typically receive, twice.

“It’s been a substantial, basically freeze, to public schools,” Krenz said.

Krenz and other district officials are giving dozens of presentations across the community to inform the public about the upcoming vote on renewing two district levies which will expire this year and next. While the district cannot actively promote the referendum’s passage, district officials are quick to tell people there will be no new taxes involved with the levy, although taxes would slightly decrease if the referendum were voted down.

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More than $1.5 million is at stake for the district, as the two levies provide $304.53 per student combined and are among three levies the district currently uses. Overall, the three levies equate to $719 of funding per student, or roughly $3.5 million.

The levies, if passed, would provide funds based on student enrollment for the next 10 years.

“It’s a critical part of our budget,” said Kathy Green, one of the district’s school board members.

Money received from state and local levies make up about 7 percent of the district’s total revenue, of which more than 80 percent goes to teacher and staff salaries. Any revenue cuts will force the district to make major cuts in its budget.

Of the about $1.5 million in question, only about $700,000 comes from the tax base in Austin. The state provides $800,000 in Austin in equalization aid, Krenz told audience members Tuesday, in order to keep smaller school districts performing at the same rate as districts in wealthier areas, such as Edina.

According to Krenz, the district has done its part to keep fiscally responsible. The district’s budget for 2009 and 2010 have been balanced, although the district would have faced a budget deficit this year if it hadn’t received $1 million in federal aid from the Education Jobs Fund, which poured about $10 billion into school districts nationwide to help create and keep teaching positions in schools.

The district has been making cuts and reductions to various administrative and supply costs. District officials were busy finding ways to be more environmentally efficient and use less energy, which Krenz says has saved more than $500,000 over the past three years.

“We have been making reductions as we go,” Krenz said. “One thing we haven’t done is reduce programs or reduce teachers. We’ve made sure those things have stayed in place.”

In order to save more money, the district has increased class sizes, which, since the district is paid a certain amount of money per pupil, helps offset staff costs as well, according to Krenz. The $800,000 in equalization aid supplied by the state would go to another school district, as the state has already set up aid money which is designated to go to the schools.

The district may have to cut deeper into its budget if the levy is defeated at the polls, however. According to Mark Stotts, the district’s finance and operations director, if the levy was voted down, the district would end up having a $1-$1.5 million projected budget deficit for the next school year and beyond, which won’t be replaced by federal aid.

The total levy cost per students is below the state levy cap, which mandates no school district receive higher than $1,523 per student in levy funds, according to the state Department of Education.

“We’ve been very conservative in the way that we’ve spent our dollars,” Green said. “We haven’t gone to the voters for more than we can support.”

In November 2009, voters shot down a referendum that would have revoked the two levies and replaced them with one levy that would have provided $531.32 per student each year — and would have meant a $1.09 million revenue increase for the district.

While last year’s referendum failed by only 116 votes, it was held a year earlier than when the district’s levies would start to expire. Now that one levy will expire this year, with the other expiring next year, the referendum would have to pass in order to avoid budget deficits.

“We’re hoping that this time (voters) will be more supportive,” Green said.