Guest Commentary: Information for referendum now online

Published 5:39 pm Tuesday, July 12, 2022

By Dr. Joey Page

With students out of school for the summer, we are already busy preparing for another successful school year and pursuing important plans for a brighter future at Austin Public Schools.

The school board recently approved a long-term strategic plan which provides a strong vision for the district to follow in the coming years. Priorities outlined in the strategic plan include ensuring a safe and welcoming learning environment, building strong character traits in our students, and providing the best support and resources. Further, we are committed to maintaining excellence in managing our resources.

As we consider the district’s operational budget, we face financial challenges that threaten our ability to preserve class sizes, staffing levels, and educational programming. State funding has not kept up with inflation for more than a decade, leaving our district to manage a budget deficit for the past five years.

To address this, the district sought the approval of a referendum in 2020 which would have raised our operating levy to $505 per student. This levy was not approved and the only reason cuts did not need to be made was the influx of COVID relief funding and grants.

Now, those one-time funds are coming to an end. Without a new revenue source, our district faces a $3 million budget deficit next year. That is why the school board will be asking Austin area voters this November to increase the district’s operating levy by $470 per student for ten years. If approved, this investment in our schools would generate $2.4 million in new revenue annually, stabilizing the budget and allowing us to preserve current class sizes and program offerings.

Across Minnesota, 70% of school districts rely on operating levies to avoid cuts to their budgets. The operating levy for Austin Public Schools is the region’s lowest at $42.70 per student annually. In comparison, Rochester Public Schools has an operating levy of $820.97 per student, and Albert Lea Area Schools has an operating levy of $620.22 per student.

The additional funding from an operating levy increase would directly support our district’s educational curriculum and extracurricular programs. We are proud to be able to offer a wide range of services, including extra tutoring and intervention programs, to make sure all students have the support they need to thrive.

Outside the classroom, we take great pride in our comprehensive Packer activities. The district’s combination of academic and extracurricular programming helps us deliver a comprehensive learning environment for all our students.

We recognize that our request to increase the operating levy is an important community decision. To help keep residents informed, our district launched a dedicated referendum website at AccelerateAustin.org. I encourage everyone to visit this website to learn more about our schools’ needs, the plan’s benefits, the tax impact, and voting. The website also provides answers to frequently asked questions, a tax calculator, and more.

If you have questions or feedback about the referendum, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. You can contact me via email at joey.page@austin.k12.mn.us or by phone at 507-460-1900.