School board candidates talk referendum and achievement gaps

Published 6:50 am Saturday, September 19, 2020

Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a Q&A featuring Austin School Board candidates on issues facing the school district.

This week are Al Eckmann, Carolyn Dube and Cece Kroc.

1. The school board has given the green light for putting an operating levy referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot. How do you sell the need for the referendum to the public?

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Al Eckmann: For the past few years Austin Public Schools has been living on a budget that had a small growth in revenue because of an increasing student enrollment. Currently we have a decreasing number of total students served by approximately 220. The same forecast is predicted for future years.

We are currently last in the Big Nine Conference of operating referendum per student with $800 to a high at Winona of $3,594. And our Unassigned Fund Balance has also been dropping because of declining enrollment. Our Referendum Authority per student, which is what we are voting on, is currently $42.70 per student. Comparisons show Albert Lea at $566.82, Rochester at $776.36, Winona at $1,227.67, Red Wing at $1,650 and Northfield at $1,748,96.

Our free and reduced meals percentage of enrollment currently is at 55.8 percent, which is the second highest in the conference.

Our overall health of our budget has been dropping, and will continue to do so in future years, unless we pass a levy referendum. Upon passing, we will have an increased revenue of $2.8 million, which is 49 percent in state aid and 51 percent in local level, and an increase by $505 per pupil for a 10-year period. This request is certainly reasonable and will put us in great shape to preserve the quality of all of our programs for now and into the future. Please vote YES!

Carolyn Dube: This year’s operating referendum is coming to the community to ensure the district has the funding necessary to continue providing the level of programming we expect for our students. Currently, our operating referendum represents a $42/pupil impact. It has been 17 years since the district last came to the public for operating funds, which speaks to the fiscally responsible approach the district takes in how voter funding is allocated. The request, equal to $505/pupil, not only brings us back to a healthy balance to set up the long term success of the district, it also puts us more in-line with the Big 9 and state averages, which hover at $857 and $1,040, respectively.

I think we can all agree that the last year has been tough on property owners. Many have already experienced large increases in their property taxes, and to ask for a little bit more can seem to be presumptive. However, at the same time, I know as a lifelong community member that this community is known for digging in just a little bit more for the next generation. The numbers reflect the need and I am hopeful the community will agree with the school board.

Cece Kroc: I believe that passing a referendum, especially during these difficult times, requires education and trust.  Helping voters and taxpayers become educated as to the “why” of the referendum is essential.

The Board and Lori Volz, through the Austin Public Schools website, have presented a solid argument for additional funding necessary to sustain the quality educational system we have in place.  It will be necessary to get the word out and answer questions through media, meetings and community outreach to ensure that all stakeholders are educated and understanding of the district finances and areas of deficit.

The more budgetary information voters are exposed to the better they will understand that due diligence has been given in assessing district needs and putting a referendum on the ballot.

Transparency, building trust, and partnership with the Austin community is essential to passing this referendum as well as a focus on the ultimate goal of continuing to provide and improve on the quality educational opportunities our students now enjoy and will continue to in the years to come.

2. A couple years ago, Austin Public Schools was flagged by the Minnesota Department of Education as being one of the schools needing support in closing the achievement gap. How does the school work to continue raising academic achievement in the district?

Eckmann: We are proud of the many accomplishments in this area and are seeking for more ways to close the academic achievement gap. Some highlights are our 2+2 Program, which provides teacher preparation planning. Our Gifted and Talented Program is very successful. Our MCA test scores are improving every year. The Early Learning Program is doing a great job. The Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten program is having is having great results. Our Third Grade Reading Project is awesome and so is the EL (Program 44).

Academic achievement is rising as our graduation rate raised five percent and its continuing to accelerate. Our admission and teachers are looking for additional programs that will keep this improvement going forward.

Dube: Closing the achievement gap is something that requires effort at all levels and stages in student development. It begins with the littlest learners, ensuring they are ready for kindergarten, and continues through graduation, working to hit key milestones until they have graduated and are ready for a career and/or college. In response to the need for support in closing the achievement gap, the school district has several initiatives in place that are making steps towards moving those numbers along the line of student performance, including creative and innovative intervention like Project E3 (Environmental Engineering for Everyone), Robotics, Young  Scholars, and more.

Austin’s unique level of diversity, with over 40 home languages represented in our schools, means we as a district and community are well aware that our students come from a broad variety of cultures and home-life experiences. This means we need to use a variety of approaches to partner with students and families. This partnership is the key to raising achievement across the community. As we continue to close the achievement gap here in Austin, we continue the efforts to ensure access to support like the success coaches and consistent communication regarding programming.

Kroc: Austin Public Schools is a beautifully diverse community of learners.  With that diversity comes a richness in the learning environment and challenges in meeting individual needs.  As an instructional coach my last seven years of employment with APS, I was acutely aware of the gaps in achievement found in our student population as well as the processes and programming in place to address them.

I believe Austin Public Schools is actively addressing the disparities in academic achievement, but recognize that this is an ongoing process requiring constant attention and modification.  Success coaches, instructional coaches, and additional mental health workers and support staff are in place to provide assistance to all students and families but have had an especially positive impact on our most at-risk groups.

Alternative learning settings on both ends of the curve have placed students in their “best fit” environment.  Ongoing and targeted staff development provides our educators with necessary tools to help them do their important work.  Mentoring systems are in place to be sure we are retaining and supporting quality staff members.  Continual observation and analysis of data, stakeholder input, and research-based decision making are essential as we move forward to ensure all our learners are getting a quality, equitable education.

3. More and more opportunities are being made in an effort to give students a post-secondary education. How do you feel Austin has done to get these students ready for life after school or what more do you think has to be done?

Eckmann: Our AVID: College Readiness program is for students of low economic background and provides extra support to raise expectations and to get to college. The Hormel Foundation Austin Assurance Scholarships helps graduates to obtain a two-year degree at Riverland Community College. Both of these programs are outstanding. And our ACT college entrance scores have been improving.

Austin schools are among the “best” in the State of Minnesota. And, we need to keep it there. Our curriculum offerings are top-notch and challenge students to be their best. Obtaining a high school diploma from AHS opens many doors to more education, advance degrees, employment possibilities, etc., and is a great start to obtaining every graduates personal goals. Be proud of our schools.

Dube: Austin Public Schools is exceptional in preparing students to become contributing members of society. In the 90s and 00s, there was a significant emphasis on guiding students toward a four-year college setting to obtain a bachelor’s degree. While there is still value in that space, APS understands that there are many pathways for learning that will prepare students for life after high school.

Current programming like AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), which focuses on helping students prepare for their futures while providing the engagement and connections needed to make personal decisions regarding their long-term education. There is also a wide variety of courses available that encourage students to try something new. The growth in the CTE spaces has been great to see in recent years, as has the growing number of students taking advantage of PSEO and the Hormel Foundation’s Austin Assurance Scholarship. All of these give our students a leg up in achieving their professional goals.

What more can be done? There will always be a new way to help a student find their path. Our students are preparing for careers that may or may not exist right now. It will be exciting to see what’s next.

Kroc: We are so blessed to live in community where education is valued and supported!   All avenues point toward being lifelong learners, so it is no surprise that Austin and the Hormel Foundation found a way to offer free or reduced costs for all graduates to attend our community college.  Collaborative efforts from the 2+2 Program to Post Secondary Options make post-secondary education a reality for many.  From an early age, the Austin Public Schools’ programming is differentiated and allows for student choice in how and, at some point, what they will learn.

In our diverse community, it is very important that learning is relevant for students and all options for furthering education are appreciated and encouraged.  This would include widening the range of electives to include subject matter that would include areas like trade work, arts, and technology.

Improving on and expanding experiential learning and mentorship programs utilizes the expertise of our community.  Career counseling, support to students and families, and modeling of lifelong learning will also contribute to turning out Austin High School graduates who go on to become happy, productive citizens.