Numbers show district’s financial restraint

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 31, 2001

After a decade of budget cuts and 25 years of declining enrollment, the Albert Lea school district hopes to lift itself from the bottom of the Big Nine with this year’s proposed excess levy referendum.

Wednesday, October 31, 2001

After a decade of budget cuts and 25 years of declining enrollment, the Albert Lea school district hopes to lift itself from the bottom of the Big Nine with this year’s proposed excess levy referendum.

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In terms of per-pupil expenditures, teacher salaries and depth of budget cuts, the district has consistently been in or close to the cellar of the conference.

&uot;Other schools in the Big Nine do spend more per student than we do, and that has been the case for awhile,&uot; said Superintendent Dr. David Prescott. &uot;But even if we were at the top of the conference, we’d still sit under the state average. Basically, this is not a high-dollar, high spending conference.&uot;

But passing the referendum Nov. 6 would not put Albert Lea at the top of the Big Nine in per pupil spending. In fact, the added funding would only boost the district toward the middle of the conference, especially given the fact that only Owatonna and Faribault are not seeking referendums this year.

&uot;Even with a successful referendum, Albert Lea would remain well under the state average in terms of per pupil spending – about $400 below,&uot; Prescott said

Mark Stotts, finance director for the district, said Albert Lea’s position in the conference and statewide is evidence of two things: Sound fiscal management by the administration and the school board and the district’s worst foe – declining enrollment.

&uot;It’s a term you hear so often anymore that it has begun to lose it’s meaning,&uot; Stotts said. &uot;But our district is really one of the hardest hit in the state. We had nearly twice as many students in the mid ’70s.&uot;

The Rochester schools continue to grow and Owatonna is at its highest enrollment ever. Even Austin has managed to maintain student numbers in the last decade. But Albert Lea, faced with an average year-to-year drop of 50 students or more, must slash budgets, leave positions unfilled and close buildings to stay viable.

And the drop in numbers has been accelerating.

&uot;Lately, we’ve seen drops of 80 or more students. While the district is graduating classes of around 300, it’s only bringing in about 200 kindergartners,&uot; Stotts said.

The district has worked hard to make the best of available resources, Prescott said. But the last round of funding from the legislature, together with soaring heating and utility costs, forced Albert Lea schools to a budget breaking point this fall.

&uot;That’s why we’re asking for the excess levy referendum. We felt it was time to take the issue to the voters rather than initiate another round of cuts. We’re just trying to maintain the programs we have in place today,&uot; Prescott said.

According to Shelley Tougas of the Minnesota School Boards Association, it’s a situation that many schools in Minnesota struggle with.

&uot;Declining enrollment and higher operating costs are affecting most districts to some degree. Many were looking to the last (legislative) session for some relief. But, what they got was only a slight increase and no assistance at all with their record-high utility bills,&uot; she said.

Tougas said 181 school districts are seeking levy referendums this year – more than half the districts in the state. Many of the districts on the sidelines this year will be proposing referendums next year, she said.

&uot;This is unprecedented – to have so many referendums going at the same time. No one is willing to hazard a guess as to how it will turn out. There are just too many factors in play,&uot; Tougas said. &uot;I just hope for the schools like Albert Lea that face the most serious program cuts that the referendums pass.&uot;

Dr. Keith Dixon, superintendent of Faribault Public Schools, is in one of those districts that will likely propose a referendum next year, but he’s keenly interested in the Nov. 6 referendum results across the state.

&uot;We’re going to be keeping a close eye on the voter turnout. We’ll be looking at what kinds of referendums passed and what kinds didn’t,&uot; Dixon said.

Though his district has not yet felt dramatic enrollment declines, projections indicate bigger drops on the horizon. Dixon attributes the drop to a demographic shift toward smaller, more mobile families

&uot;The decline we see in Albert Lea is probably what most of us in the Big Nine are going to be facing in the next twenty or thirty years. In fact, we’ve already closed a smaller elementary and a combined two others to prepare for it,&uot; he said.

Owatonna Superintendent Dr. Jim Bauck is also studying a referendum proposal for 2002. Though he heads a district with record enrollments, he agrees that student numbers will probably drop in the future.

&uot;The people in Minnesota will have some tough questions to answer about their schools in the coming years,&uot; he said. &uot;I admire the way Albert Lea has dealt with a tough situation down there. The rest of us can learn something from the example.&uot;