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Albert Lea district leaders aim to share more information on referendum

Albert Lea Area Schools administrators presented additional information during the Albert Lea school board meeting Monday about the proposed referendum that is on the ballot this election.

Passage of the referendum question would revoke the district’s current referendum of $573.74 per pupil and replace that with an authorization for $714.67 per pupil. The district is bringing the question before voters as the existing levy expires in 2022. The increase would go to support the district’s technology needs.

Jennifer Walsh, Albert Lea district executive director of finance and operations, said in Austin, the school board is asking voters to approve an additional $505 per pupil — increasing from $42 per pupil currently to $548 per pupil — and Owaonnta is asking voters over the course of a few years to approve an additional $600 per pupil, increasing from $483 per pupil to $1,083 per pupil.

She said if the Albert Lea school district’s referendum passes, the district will still be in the lower third for referendum authorization in the Big Nine. Mankato is currently at $459 per pupil, Faribault at $778, Rochester at $781, Winona at $1,228, Red Wing at $1,650 and Northfield at $1,760.

Walsh, who started with the district about a year ago, said it is evident that the district has done a great job financially and has been “outstanding stewards” of taxpayer money, maintaining a fund balance of over $6.3 million in the last five years.

Superintendent Mike Funk shared some of the improvements that have been made in the district since 2014, including new HVAC systems totaling $16.5 million in six of the district’s buildings, utilizing zero interest bonds and saving taxpayers $3.38 million.

The district purchased 4,125 laptops or Chromebooks that are utilized by students and staff and upgraded wireless capabilities. It has also modernized the Hammer Complex and added a security entrance and full-size gymnasium on Halverson Elementary School. The $24.615 million project came in on budget with no increased cost to taxpayers.

Because the current levy expires in 2022 and because of the district’s significant technology needs, the district is turning to the taxpayers for support moving forward for an increased referendum to support these needs.

He noted that the district has already cut $763,500 in the budget for 2020-21, and with enrollment projects showing flat or slightly declining enrollment, there could be further reductions in revenue.

“We’re going to need an investment to continue to provide technology at the level we’re providing it,” he said.

Currently, 750 students are using Chromebooks or iPads as primary learning devices in distance learning, 1,300 students are utilizing them every other day for primary learning at the secondary level, and 1,200 elementary students are utilizing iPads on Fridays for learning.

The district’s technology replacement plan before the COVID-19 pandemic called for replacing anywhere from 500 to 1,380 Chromebooks each year. The Chromebooks are replaced every four years and iPads are replaced every five years, with the district spending in excess of $1 million each year on technology-related expenses, including devices, licenses, network and firewalls, and technology staff salaries.

Add on top of it, Funk said, is the uncertain future at the state level with as much as a $5 billion shortfall predicted for the next budget. He said in the past when the state has had a shortfall, education funding is likely frozen and a significant portion of state aid is delayed.

If the district has to switch its learning model to full-time distance learning, the devices are placed under increased wear.

He said the district will not be able to maintain its current technology plan under these conditions without some assistance from taxpayers.

If the referendum is approved it equates to a $36 annual — or $3 monthly — increase for a home or business with an estimated market value of $100,000. Owners of agricultural land would only be taxed on one acre, a house and a garage, but would not be taxed on additional agricultural land or buildings.