APS board approves referendum for November election

Published 6:29 pm Tuesday, June 14, 2022

The Austin School Board on Monday night approved a special election this fall for another run at an operating referendum that if passed would generate millions of dollars in revenue.

While final wording of the question to be put before voters has yet to be established, the proposed referendum would increase per pupil money by $470 from $42.70 to $512.70 and would generate tax revenue to the tune of around $2.48 million.

“Our goal is to avoid making cuts that hurt our ability to best support all students,” said Superintendent Joey Page in a follow-up press release Tuesday. “The school board’s plan will keep our schools strong by investing in learning and enrichment opportunities for students today and into the future.”

Austin historically has had one of the lowest operating referendums in the state. In a comparison to several surrounding districts in southern Minnesota, Austin trails behind the next lowest, Fairmont Area, with an operating referendum of $301 per student. Next door, Albert Lea is at $603 per student.

In the past Austin has been able to get away with such a low amount because of an increasing enrollment, but in the last couple years enrollment in the district has plateaued.

The COVID-19 pandemic amplified that, but the district’s budget was kept steady by Federal CARES Act funds. However, in the next budget cycle the district is faced with what Executive Director of Finance and Operations Andrew Beenken-Adams has called significant cuts at around $3 million starting in the spring of 2023.

While the referendum wouldn’t make up all of that, the projected $2.8 million would account for the lion’s share and put the district in a more flexible position.

The estimated annual impact on an average home of $170,000 would be $147.80.

The district attempted a similar levy in the 2020 election, but it was narrowly voted down. That ballot question called for a $505 increase and would have impacted a $150,000 home by $143.24 annually and would have generated $2.8 million in revenue.

It was a disappointing setback for the district, but a community survey conducted this year showed voters seemed to be receptive to the ballot question. The survey, conducted with 300 citizens, showed 62% of those questioned supported the idea of a referendum.

“We listened and put together a package we think meets those needs,” Beenken-Adams said.

The district is in the process of updating its newly launched referendum website, AccelerateAustin.org, with more information coming, which will include a tax calculator, voting information and other resources. In the meantime, questions can be directed to Superintendent Joey Page at 507-460-1900 or joey.page@austin.k12.mn.us.

In other news:

• The board approved a raise of $ .10 for lunches across the district in order to meet changing regulations in the National School Lunch Program. Elementary lunch prices will be raised to $2.60, grades 5-8 to $2.70 and grades 9-12 $2.80. Breakfast prices will see no change. Look to the Herald later in the week for a closer look as to the reason behind the changes.

• The board also approved a change to sports fees. The price for high school sports will now rise to $100 per sport while for middle school sports the price rises to $70 per sport. Fine arts, activities and club participation will be raised to $45. This flat fee is a change from last year’s rates where prices were staggered based on how many sports students were participating in.

Season passes for families are now $150 and adult season passes will be bumped up to $60.