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APS approves amended budget as it adapts to changes from COVID-19

The Austin Public Schools Board approved an amended budget for 2019-20 Monday afternoon as it seeks to adapt to changes forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the district remains in a good place at this point, a shortfall is forcing the district to look closely at a possible operating levy that would make up for lost funds because of the COVID-19 pandemic in areas like property taxes, money from lunches and money from the state.

During the Mower County Commissioners Board Meeting Tuesday morning, commissioners voted unanimously to approve pushing back penalties from paying first half property taxes for all classes late, including small businesses and schools, back to July 15 from May 15.

That grace period came after a survey conducted by the county showed a majority of those taking part, including Austin Public Schools, approved of the move.

While the delay is a good step forward in alleviating pressures caused by COVID-19, it does take away a significant source of funding for the school district, which receives funds from these property taxes.

“The county commissioners voted to delay the collection of (penalties from) property taxes for small businesses and for anyone that might have difficulties with the COVID thing,” Superintendent David Krenz said. “We’re delayed in receiving those revenues. It’s not a huge portion of our revenue, but it’s still significant because we don’t get regular checks from the state.”

Executive Director of Finance and Operations Lori Volz explained that the updated budget comes from the reflection of staff hired, contract settlements, updated enrollment numbers and updates to various grants and programs.

While the financial outlook for the district improved some from the original forecast, APS is “stall(ed) in a definite spending mode,” Volz said. “That is why an operating referendum is being recommended to the board for consideration.”

Generally, the district tries to operate with a 8.33 percent fund balance in its Unassigned General Fund, which equates to one month operating expense. However, the district has dipped below that mark this year.

“For the Unassigned General Fund, we’re running a loss in that category, and although it’s improved some from the original budget, we’re still running a loss and what that means is we’re spending down in the fund balance, even with a lot of cost savings measures,” Volz said.

In the past, the district has been able to get by on a fairly low operating referendum because the student population has been seeing routine growth. That breaks down to a very low operating referendum per student compared to schools in the rest of the state.

Austin receives $42 per pupil compared to $1,040 per pupil across the rest of the state.

“Up to this point, it helps our financial situation tremendously,” Volz said. “Now that growth has flattened out.”

Krenz said he expects the board to take up the issue sometime in June or July

Distance learning

During his report, Krenz gave an update on how the distance learning is going for the district.

On Monday, the district instituted its second packet distribution to parents and students and looked at what could happen later in the month should schools be allowed to come back to the classrooms.

“Right now the directive is students and teachers stay home until April 30,” Krenz told the board. “Teachers would be required to come in May 1 to make ready for the kids to come back on May 5. We’ll have to wait to see if that takes place.”

Either way, Krenz has been very happy with the work teachers and staff have put in to getting ready for distance learning.

“Teachers have been asked in eight days to change their form of teaching,” Krenz said. “They are doing a fantastic job and frankly they’re not getting enough credit for this … I’m here to say I want to give them credit. It might be a little preachy, but I think teachers have been downtrodden enough.”