Board considers levy components before approving proposed 5.59 percent increase

Published 10:39 pm Monday, September 24, 2018

After deconstructing the whole to look at each part, the Albert Lea Area Schools board approved a proposed 5.59 percent levy increase Monday night.

District deputy superintendent Lori Volz said the proposed levy showed an increase of $459,676. For the owner of a $100,000 home, this increases taxes by $2.72 per month, Volz said.

Of that, $171,023 came as part of a general education revenue increase as the district pupil units — students between ages 5 and 21 who reside in the district — also increased.

School board member Jill Marin asked what the effect of approving a smaller amount of general education revenue funding would be. Volz said an underlevy in general education would make it difficult for the district to operate, as the majority of its operating expenses come out of that general fund category. She noted 80 percent of the district’s costs are people-related.

“Quite frankly, this board would be saying they are going to make cuts,” Volz said of an underlevy for general education revenue.

Marin asked whether the district could look at its technology spending rather than people.

“Obviously, everything would be analyzed if you needed to go to that way,” Volz siad. “I do want to emphasize that the gen ed funding as a state has not kept up with inflation, and so if a district were to underlevy the gen ed revenue, it would be like a double whammy. We’re already not adequately funded from the state, and if we underlevy, then we would be penalizing our children even to another level.”

Although school board member Angie Hanson said levying to the district’s full capacity seemed like “a no-brainer” when it came to receiving matching funds from the state, she said she was tentative about raising taxes for a community that just passed a referendum for the district.

Long-term facilities maintenance funding increased by $169,731 as the district proposed to levy for the full amount allowed. This is a departure from last year’s decision to underlevy. That money would finish resurfacing the Brookside Education Center’s parking lot, a project projected to cost $380,000, and refinish part of Southwest Middle School’s roof for $450,000. Both projects were approved at a June board meeting.

School board chair Ken Petersen said board members walked around the Brookside parking lot when the conversation about funding its redo came up in June. He said the front, which was resurfaced several years ago, looked good, but the back needed work.

School board member Neal Skaar and Volz noted an underlevy would also diminish funding received from the state.

Increasing toward the full levy amount possible for the district in long-term facilities maintenance funding this year would mean future years would not require a levy increase in the same funding category, district superintendent Mike Funk said.

“Do we want to catch up, or do we want to come back a year from now and have the same discussion we had last year, and then we’ll have this discussion again next year because we’ll still be worried about catching up?” Funk said. “…In the meantime, we’ll still have these facility needs that are going to be kicked down the road a year until we can talk about it next year.”

Part of the levy increase would also funnel into career and technical education, which has increased the number of vocationally funded programs by two.

“This is really the first year we’re seeing all of those efforts coming into a funding increase,” Volz said.

The final category Volz noted a significant increase in was in a debt service excess fund balance adjustment, for which the state Legislature sets the parameters. Volz said this increase is in line with what the district anticipated.

Volz said the district’s debt service payments do not kick in until 2020 to be paid in 2021, and therefore the district does not see an impact from the athletic facilities improvements in the 2018-19 schedule.

School board members Hanson, Petersen, Dave Klatt and Skaar voted to approve the proposed levy increase, while Marin voted no. She told the board she was not comfortable with a 5.59 percent tax increase, knowing this increase is just one slice of the tax pie for community members.

“I do believe there are opportunities to sharpen the pencil along the way,” she said.

The approved proposed levy is up for certification in December.

“The generations before us have provided what we have today, and I feel like it’s my responsibility to provide for generations of the future — responsibly, of course,” Petersen said.

In other action:

• Since the district began an employee-based energy conservation program in 2002, the district has saved over $4 million, Albert Lea Area Schools energy manager Stephen Lund reported. The 2017-2018 school year alone had a savings of $282,581. The district has also reduced its kilowatt hours by almost two million over those 15 years, Lund said. He said lighting changes — as well as replacing boilers and furnaces with more efficient models — has saved the district a lot of money.

“Oh yes, (the lights) have paid for themselves several times,” he said.

• Funk said the district’s suspension data reflects more tellingly on poverty than racial demographic. For the 2017-18 school year, Albert Lea Area Schools had 369 in-school suspensions and 650 out-of-school suspensions. Of those suspensions 270 in-school and 476 out-of-school suspensions were students who qualified for free and reduced lunch.

“Poverty is a significant factor — as well as the demographics of who’s being suspended — but poverty is also something we’ve got to take a look at,” Funk said.

• Albert Lea Area Schools swore in new student school board representative Maggie Moller. Gigi Otten, who was a student representative last year, continues to be a student representative to the board.

• Albert Lea Education Association set this year’s Gobble Wobble for Nov. 18, Southwest Middle School teacher Laura Wangen said. Online registration for the event is open.

• The board approved five-year property tax abatements for two properties owned by David and Crystal Miller and Brett Richard Hanson. The abatement limits property tax increases that would result from property improvement, Volz said.

About Sarah Kocher

Sarah covers education and arts and culture for the Tribune.

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