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APS board approves operation levy referendum for this year’s election

It’s going to be a busy election year for the Austin Public School District.

During its monthly meeting on Monday, the APS School Board voted unanimously in calling for a special election for an operating levy referendum.

Along with that, four seats on the board are up for election, including the seat currently held by Don Fox, a long-time educator and administrator with the district who announced his retirement Monday, effective Nov. 2, the day before this year’s general election.

Currently, the district is operating below the 8.33 percent of its unassigned general fund balance boundary related largely to a “plateauing” of student enrollment at the school, according to Austin Public Schools’ Executive Director of Finance and Operations Lori Volz.

Projections for the 2020 fiscal year have the district settling in at 5.16 percent.

The levy, as it will appear on the ballot in November, will increase the operating referendum to $505 per pupil for a 10-year period. The operating referendum now is $42 per pupil.

Should the referendum pass, revenue for the district will increase by $2.8 million and will break down to 49 percent in state aid and 51 percent in local levy, according to district numbers.

A home valued at $125,000 will see an increase of $9.95 per month.

Volz submitted the official budget to the board earlier in the meeting looking ahead to the 2020-21 school year, which was approved by the board. This year’s budget was $100,846,000 while the 2020-21 budget is at $95,352,000, lower because construction on the MacPhail/Annex project will have been completed.

Volz reported that the district is running at a deficit currently.

Steps were taken to try and reduce that deficit, including reductions in spending, cost cutting, setting up additional revenue streams and having to cut five full-time teaching positions.

The district got a big boost; however, when it was able to avoid paying an increase on its health insurance.

“I’m emphasizing how much the healthcare premium at zero percent will help our budget,” Volz said. “If our health insurance increased by five percent, it would mean an additional $500,000 expense.”

Still, the district is running at a $400,000 deficit in the unassigned general fund.

Encouragingly, Volz reported, that they are seeing improvement in that unassigned general fund and that a projected rise in enrollment of 27 students could help the cause as well.

Board member Don Leathers asked Volz how extra work brought on by COVID-19, including sanitation, PPE gear and extra cleaning will be covered.

“Where’s that money coming from?” he asked.

Volz explained that it’s coming from the federal CARES Act, that was designed for COVID-19 related business, but it doesn’t cover the money districts are expecting in state aid.

Getting by

Over the 10-year period, the district has been able to operate a successful school district at such a low per student cost because of the growing student enrollment dating back to 2010.

The $42 per student expense is  the lowest in the Big Nine conference of schools, and one of the lowest in the state of Minnesota.

Comparatively, Northfield has a much higher number at $1,748.96 per pupil, well above the state average of $1,040 per student.

In 2010, school enrollment at AHS was at 4,063. and This year it was 4,954, down from 4,989 the year before that. Decreasing enrollment means the district faces losing money in state aid.

“The good news is we have been able to get by all of these years with such a low amount, but now that we have plateaued, we need an operating levy now more than ever,” Volz said.

Even though there are schools operating at higher ends of the spectrum, Volz explained that it’s a trend seen in most schools within the conference.

“We’re at such a low amount, and (other schools) are at a higher amount than us and they are still looking at an operating levy higher than what they have,” Volz said.

It’s the first time the district has asked for an operating levy since 2003,when voters approved to renew a $1 million operating levy.

Should voters give the okay to the referendum in November, then the district would go forward with its plan to spread the money out as much as possible.

Superintendent David Krenz said it’s important to use the money properly to ensure it’s there where they need it in the future.

“The idea is to get that money on a yearly basis that you will cover your costs,” Krenz said. “For places like Winona, and I said this many times, they passed a referendum, one of the largest in the state, and they spent that money right away. You can’t do that.”

“Our plan is to bank it over time,” he added.

The hope is the money can be used to get the general fund back to 8.33 percent and then use the rest of the money to protect it over that 10-year life span.

Election

Along with the referendum questions, three seats on the school board will be up for this general election on Nov. 3, which does not include the seat Fox will be vacating because technically it is seen as a special election.

The three seats include Chairperson Carolyn Dube, Don Leathers and Richard Lees.

Together, the board hailed Fox as a dedicated representative of the Austin Public Schools District throughout his long history of education.

“I want to take this opportunity, Don, to thank you for your service,” Dube said. “We will enjoy these last few months.”

“Don, not only your tenure on the school board, but your time as a teacher, principal and athletic coach is beyond reproach,” Leathers added.

Even though his seat is one of those coming up in November, Leathers went on to publicly encourage those interested to file for candidacy, especially those within the immigrant community, whose students make up so much of the school’s population.

“I would encourage you if you are here to either run for special board (seat) or one of the three regular board positions and represent your community,” he urged those listening to the livestream. “It’s an extremely important position, you learn a lot and it’s a good experience.”

The school will be holding an information session for those thinking about running for the board that will bring them up to speed on everything involved with being a school board member. That will be held at 5 p.m. on June 29.

Filing dates are July 28 to Aug. 11 with a filing fee of $2. Absolute deadline is 5 p.m. on Aug. 11.