By Rebecca Houg, staff writer

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 7, 2006

How much are Albert Lea residents willing to pay for quality education? That question will be answered Nov. 7 in voting booths around the Albert Lea school district.

The ballot measure asks for a $957.87 per pupil operating levy. If passed, it will revoke a $497.87 per pupil operating levy slated to sunset next year.

If the measure passes, the levy will bring $3.8 million in revenue to the school district, up $1.7 million from the present voter-approved levy revenue of $2.1 million.

Homeowners in the district would experience a less than 1 percent increase for the school levy on their property tax, should the measure pass, said Freeborn County Assessor Ryan Rasmusson.

&8220;Homeowners can take the taxable market value of their home on the property tax statement and multiply it by .13 percent to get the amount increased by the operating levy referendum,&8221; Rasmusson said.

&8220;It&8217;s an estimate,&8221; added Freeborn County Treasurer Dennis Distad. &8220;There are a lot of factors involved to determine exactly what that number will be.&8221;

But it gives voters a place to start, they said. The average value of a home in Independent School District 241 is about $100,000, and if the levy is passed, it would be about a $130 increase per year, Rasmusson said.

Keep in mind, farmland is not subject to the school levy. Rural homeowners will be taxed on the taxable market value of their house, garage and one acre of land. Businesses are subject to the levy increase as well as homeowners.

More than money

Opponent Clarine Larson said she should not be expected to pay for the education of other people&8217;s children.

&8220;I put my own children through school, and they put their children through school. I feel like senior citizens should get a break,&8221; she said.

Larson said taxes are hard on older people living on fixed incomes. She said the school district should budget better. She added she doesn&8217;t like that parents would pay more for having their children in sports if the referendum fails.

&8220;It all comes down to money,&8221; said para-educator Cobi Wangen. &8220;Unfortunately, some people don&8217;t realize how education makes our quality of life better.&8221;

Like Wangen, proponents of the issue say rejecting the measure would have more damaging effects than people realize.

&8220;It&8217;s not really the school&8217;s fault that a levy is needed. They don&8217;t like doing this either,&8221; said Terri Wichmann, co-chairwoman of proponents group Together Education Achieves More &8212; or TEAM.

Wichmann said she understands how seniors on a fixed income might feel, but they might not realize that changes in state funding caused the need for schools to levy on local property taxes.

&8220;I&8217;m concerned about my kid&8217;s education and the consequences they will face. I worry about kids falling through the cracks and I don&8217;t want that to happen,&8221; Wichmann said.

The proposed operating levy is intended to maintain the quality of educational programs, not add or improve, said school board Chairman Ken Petersen.

Voters approved the present Albert Lea school levy in 2001. That year, state lawmakers increased the state&8217;s responsibility for funding schools and its share went from 74 percent to 90 percent. As a result, school taxes dropped. And the current levy had been based on the prediction that state funding would continue to increase by 2 percent each year, Petersen said.

&8220;However, the next two years the state placed a freeze on funding, allowing no increases until 2004 and 2005 when schools experienced 4 percent increases,&8221; Petersen said.

But 2 percent plus 2 percent plus 2 percent plus 2 percent over four years is less than 0 percent plus 0 percent plus 4 percent plus 4 percent, Petersen noted.

&8220;If there had been consistent increases of 2 percent over the last four years, it would make a difference of $1,601,798, compared to the freeze and then two 4 percent increases,&8221; he said.

The ballot measure comes after struggling with state funds, Albert Lea Superintendent David Prescott. Many school districts are in the same boat. Fifty-eight school districts in Minnesota seek an operating levy in the Nov.

7 election.

&8220;The disappointment from &8217;02 wasn&8217;t the levy and the money it brought in, it was the projection in state funding that didn&8217;t come through,&8221; Prescott said.

Administration

Welder Doug Schultz said district administrators make too much money. He said in the 1970s class sizes in Albert Lea were larger &8212; near 500 students &8212; and packing plant employees in Albert Lea made about $35,000 a year. School administrators, he said, made about $5,000 more.

The senior class is near 350, and Prescott makes about $122,000.

&8220;For a public servant to make three, four, five times that much rubs me the wrong way,&8221; he said.

Schultz said business-and-education cheerleaders in Albert Lea believe in the &8220;If you build it, they will come&8221; mantra.

&8220;It&8217;s this &8216;Field of Dreams&8217; thing,&8221; Schultz said.

When compared to the budgets of other Freeborn County school districts, Albert Lea comes in behind Alden-Conger at 9.6 percent and Glenville-Emmons at 8.1 percent, with only 7.5 percent of its operating budget dedicated to administration, Petersen said.

Albert Lea also comes in at the bottom of the list when compared to like-sized Big Nine school districts such as Austin, Owatonna and Faribault, Petersen said. The state average for administration costs is 8.4 percent.

Albert Lea is able to keep its administration costs low because administrators have taken on extra duties and the district doesn&8217;t have a human resources department, Prescott said.

When comparing what percent of its budget is spent on instructional needs, Albert Lea comes in at the top of the lists with 64.7 percent, beating Glenville-Emmons&8217; 62.7 percent and Alden-Conger&8217;s 61.8 percent, Petersen said. The state average for instructional needs is 63.3 percent.

Learning from past mistakes

The &8217;02 levy was a second try after the failure of an &8217;01 levy attempt. &8220;We heard people say &8216;If I would have known&8217; after the 2001 vote failed, when people started noticing differences caused by the lack of funding,&8221; Petersen said.

The school administration and board members continue to offer their time to visit with local groups and give presentations educating the public on the details of the levy.

&8220;We&8217;ve done nine with about six more so far, and there are still five weeks to go,&8221; said Albert Lea Superintendent Dave Prescott. &8220;There is no pressure to vote either way, we&8217;re just trying to get the facts out.&8221;

This time around, the school board has created a budget deficit reduction plan outlining where cuts will be made and fees will be increased for the 2007-&8217;08 school year should the referendum fail.

&8220;This is our way of letting the public know, ahead of time, how their educational system will be changed,&8221; Petersen said.

The school board has approved the $1 million reduction plan Sept. 18, and it will become a reality if the levy is not approved, he said.

In addition, the district has made reductions to projected expenses for years, Prescott said.

A check of school board budgets reveal cuts from 1990 to the present. The academic year with the largest cuts was 2002-&8217;03, which had $1.1 million chopped from the budget.

On the chopping block

Areas that would take major hits in the budget deficit reduction plan include $300,000 from elementary education, $254,295 out of high school programs and $314,700 from districtwide services such as busing, along with others. The full plan is available for the public on the district&8217;s Web site.

One potential area for change is increasing the number of students in elementary classrooms to eliminate six full-time teachers and trim a hefty $300,000.

Technology also stands to be reduced by 33 percent, which would cause the replacement cycle on technology to go from six to eight years.

&8220;Replacing technology every eight years is not good. It&8217;s going to hurt the kids. Things just won&8217;t work as well,&8221; Director of Technology Floyd Harves said.

Cuts to the tune of $72,000 to student transportation will come from changing the walking limit for bus service availability from one to two miles for first through 12th grades. Kindergarten will stay the same at a one-mile limit.

&8220;A major concern for us is the busing reduction, the two-mile limit poses a safety concern,&8221; said Hawthorne Elementary School Principal Corrine Tims.

She said, however, her greatest fear among the proposed cuts is larger class sizes.

&8220;The needs are more challenging than they used to be, and we want to meet those needs. We&8217;re not able to do it as well with increased class sizes,&8221; Tims said.

What the future holds

Students from the Albert Lea School District are concerned about their future, too.

&8220;I think it&8217;s definitely going to effect me. I&8217;ll have to pay more for being on the track team,&8221; said junior Jessica Herman.

In response to the senior citizens who don&8217;t want to pay for the education of other people&8217;s children, senior Leah Atz said, &8220;They were all a kid once. They should try to remember what it was like.&8221;

&8220;They are going to destroy future generations if our education isn&8217;t valued,&8221; Atz added.

If not approved, the school board likely would consider another operating levy referendum next year, Petersen said. And if that one doesn&8217;t pass, they would face making an additional $2 million in cuts for the 2008-&8217;09 year, he said.