School board candidates talk issues at last debate

Published 11:20 am Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Austin Public School board candidates got one more chance to reach voters Wednesday night at the League of Women Voters 2011 Election forum. Yet the candidates are having a difficult time standing out.

Six candidates are vying for four seats. Incumbents Kathy Green and Don Fox hope to keep their seats while Greg Larson, Jeff Ollman, Carol McAlister and Angie Goetz are looking to claim their first posts.

Each candidate has given the same or similar answers on many district issues in previous forums, news articles and questionnaires. Wednesday’s forum did little to differentiate the candidates, as it had a majority of character-based questions. Candidates answered two issues-based questions on the tax impact of the $28.9 million referendum for a new fifth- and sixth-grade school and Woodson Kindergarten Center expansion, and the prevalence of bullying in Austin. Candidates relied on their backgrounds to separate themselves.

“I wish they would have asked about test scores and the achievement gap,” said Goetz, who is a property manager at Western Manor Apartments. Goetz said she would bring diversity to the board as a mother of elementary school children and hopes the district will address diversity issues more prominently.

Several candidates agreed, saying they hoped to discuss more district issues, yet each candidate recognized the hour-long forum wasn’t long enough to address all school issues.

Each candidate spoke about the tax impact of the $28.9 million referendum, answering a question by a voter who first thought there wouldn’t be a tax impact for residents.

At issue is the tax increase for property owners, though district officials say the increase won’t be quite so severe. The 1991 $20 million bond referendum to renovate Austin High School will be paid off this year, which would offset most of the referendum costs if passed.

A $100,000 home’s property tax would increase by about $50 per year (or $1,000 total) if voters approved a 20-year, $28.9 million capital bond this November. A $150,000 home’s property taxes would increase by about $74.

By the same token, if the referendum fails, a $100,000 home’s property tax would go down by $76 and by $114 on a $150,000 home.

Only McAlister, a Mayo researcher who plays up her managerial and budgetary experience, has shown concern over the possible tax impact on residents, although she previously said she understands the district’s need for more space. She said after the forum that many of the residents she’s spoken to are concerned about impending tax increases, from the city of Austin’s 14 percent levy increase to Mower County’s 7 percent levy increase as well as the property tax increase from the loss of the Homestead Market Value Credit, which legislators eliminated during a special session this summer.

“They’re just feeling overwhelmed,” McAlister said.

Yet candidates were quick to point out what they say the most important issue is: increasing student enrollment that district staff don’t have space for.

“The real issue here is overcrowding in our schools,” said Green, a 16-year board member who said her experience working with various state education committees, including her role as a director for the Minnesota School Board Association, separates her from other candidates.

Larson, a Certified Public Accountant for Hill, Larson, Walth & Benda, said he believes voters will look at his accounting and experience and his views on district issues, specifically his views on decreasing state funding and federal No Child Left Behind mandates as reasons he stands out.

“They at least got the chance to see who we are as people and where we come from,” Larson said.

The Herald previously reported that Larson worked for Larson & Allen. The Herald regrets the error.

Fox, a former elementary principal, athletic director, physical education teacher and guidance counselor hopes voters will look at his 40 years of educational experience and his work over the past four years as a board member and vote to retain him.

“I think I’ve proven myself over the last four years,” he said. “I love it and I want to continue doing it.”

Ollman, who has spoken at length about his humble upbringing and sensible nature, worked in Austin schools for 31 years as a speech and language pathologist and wished he could have spoken about a possible Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics program as well as the district’s diversity efforts at the forum Wednesday.

“If we can give our district and this city a heads-up on the competition (in science-related jobs), boy, that’s the way to go,” Ollman said.

The League of Women Voters school board forum will be shown on Channel 16 at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. from Nov. 3 to Nov. 6 each day, as well as on Youtube.