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Update: School board appoints Wagner Construction to Woodson expansion project

The Austin Public School board appointed Austin-based Wagner Construction as the general contractor for the Woodson Kindergarten Center expansion project set to begin next month.

Wagner put in the lowest base bid at $1.22 million for the expansion project, which includes expanding Woodson’s east main entrance, adding six classrooms, two bathrooms and reorganizing administration space. Wagner’s total bid with additional project costs is $1.37 million, which is about $240,000 under district projections.

“That’s really good news,” said Mat Miller, Buildings and Operations Director, during the board’s monthly special session meeting Monday.

Woodson’s expansion will take place at the same time that J.D. Driver Construction will make heating, venting and air conditioning improvements to the building. Miller said J.D. Driver and Wagner may share subcontractors during the projects, which would decrease building costs even further.

“The whole building is really getting a retrofit,” said Superintendent David Krenz at the meeting.

Though the project will come in at $243,000 under budget, taxpayers won’t see the effects in their annual statements. The $243,000 will go towards the new fifth- and sixth-grade building project, which will begin this summer. That money will help the district defray unexpected costs like relocating tennis courts at Ellis Middle School, according to Mark Stotts, Finance and Operations Director.

“It allows us to do more,” Stotts said.

Bonding bids and crippling cash flow

Oh, what a difference a percent makes.

Taxpayers that own a $100,000 home will see $1 in property tax savings this year from district bond sales, according to district officials.

The board approved the sale of $29.3 million in bonds to financial firm Piper Jaffray & Co. at 2.97 percent interest, which is less than the 3.7 percent interest district officials predicted last year when voters approved a $28.9 million bond referendum on a new fifth- and sixth-grade school and Woodson Kindergarten Center expansion.

“It’s really good news,” said Mark Stotts, finance and operations director. “It’s straight savings.”

The difference in percentages means the district will pay $2.15 million less overall on the bonds. That means about $1 in savings for taxpayers with a $100,000 home this year, since the board passed the 2012 payable property tax levy under the projected interest estimate. From then on, taxpayers will pay about $7 less, according to Stotts.

It wasn’t all sunshine for the district’s finances, however. The board approved borrowing $7 million through eight anticipation bonds to stave off the district’s cash flow issues. District officials weren’t expecting to borrow money until state legislators shifted $700 million in state aid from schools as part of a budget deal to get the state out of debt last summer. Legislators had already shifted millions of dollars before that, however.

The 2010 budget shift called for making 70 percent of the first budget year’s payment out to schools and then paying off the remainder over the next two years. Under the current shift, schools get 60 percent of their aid during the first year with the rest paid off in subsequent years. School districts will still get the same revenue, but a district’s cash flow will be negatively impacted as expenses and revenues constantly cycle through schools.

Debating grading

Austin Public Schools is getting serious about grading.

In coming months, the district will discuss centralizing its grading and the way staff reports those grades to families.

“We’re trying to take some of that variability away,” said John Alberts, educational services director.

Alberts and staff volunteers poured over grading and reading policies since last summer to come up with guiding principles for district officials to decide how students should be graded. Alberts said Ellis Middle School’s Grading for Learning policy, in which students have 90 percent of their grades based on academics and 10 percent of their grades based on classroom behaviors, sparked the discussion. Yet the district didn’t have an overall policy on how teachers should grade.

“We really didn’t have any policy on grading and reporting in Austin,” Alberts said.

Alberts proposed guiding principles for the board to adopt, which means grades will:

—Reflect students’ acquired knowledge based on content standards.

—Report students’ content knowledge using mathematically valid measures (which are separate from classroom behaviors).

—Utilize common assessments based on content standards using district-wide criteria.

—Provide opportunities for academic improvement over time.

Only two other districts in Minnesota have overall grading and reporting policies, according to Superintendent David Krenz.

Board members will discuss putting those guiding principles in place while administrators and staff work on what the overall district policy would be.

“It’s a big adjustment but I think it’s very workable,” said Board Chairman Jeff Kritzer.