The ongoing battle for funding for educating students in area schools

Published 9:00 am Saturday, February 27, 2021

Leader of USC District grateful voters approved referendum

Three schools in the coverage area had operating levy referendums on the ballot in this past November’s election. Of Albert Lea, United South Central and NRHEG, United South Central was the only school to get by with a passing vote. 

While Albert Lea and NRHEG were both requesting increases to their operating levies, United South Central requested to have their existing referendum renewed. 

“This levy provides additional revenue for just general operating purposes in the district,” said USC Superintendent Keith Fleming. “We rely on that for budgeting purposes and to provide smaller class sizes, and additional programming and services for students. 

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The levy provides about $900,000 of additional revenue, which equates to $1,180.49 per pupil. The referendum will be levied in 2020 for taxes payable in 2021 and will be in place for another 10 years. It is subject to increase with the annual rate of inflation. The previous referendum was passed in 2010. 

The measure narrowly passed on the ballot with 1,609, or 54.6% voting for the levy, while 1,362, or 45.84% voted against. 

Fleming said the district was able to operate with a balanced budget, which is the main reason why the district asked for a renewal instead of trying to push for more money. 

The renewal has minimal impact on property taxes within the school district. Fleming estimated that for a home valued at $100,000, the tax increase would amount to about $4. It also has no impact on agricultural property, only taking into effect the house and one acre of land for farms. 

Fleming said it was difficult to say what exactly the funds would be used for because the money goes into the general operating funds. However, he said the funds have gone to providing one-to-one devices for all the students, as well as a strong Wi-Fi signal throughout the school. The smaller class sizes at United South Central are also thanks in large part to the referendum funds.

This chart shows operating levies for other schools in the Big NIne Conference before the November 2020 election cycle. Albert Lea’s operating levy currently sits at $574 per pupil after the increase was voted down. Provided

Fleming said there are a number of services the school would not be able to provide at all without the help of the operating levy. 

“We offer some elective classes that we wouldn’t be able to offer without those funds,” Fleming said. “We offer student support services that we wouldn’t be able to offer without those funds, as well as some additional activities for students.”

Fleming said without the levy, the district’s budget would take a significant hit and would result in the loss of programming and services for students, as well as some staff positions within the school. 

“I really want to communicate how appreciative we are that we have the support from our communities,” Fleming said. “Passing this operating levy is just another example of that.”

In Albert Lea, the proposed levy would have increased the operating levy by $140.93 per pupil, from $573.74 to $714.67. The measure was voted down by a fairly wide margin, 7,151, or 63.64% voting against, compared to 4,086, or 36.36% voting against. 

The referendum would have equated to a $3 monthly increase in taxes to a home valued at $100,000. 

“I am disappointed to see the regional trend against supporting school districts in this pandemic environment,” said Albert Lea Area Schools Superintendent Mike Funk in a November interview. “Albert Lea Area Schools will be coming back to the voters in 2021 to gain support for our district to avoid 3.5 million dollars in cuts that our district will face after our referendum expires in 2022.”

At NRHEG, the referendum would have increased the general operating revenue by $560 per pupil and would have been in place for 10 years. The measure was voted down with 1,850, or 66.05% voting against, and 951, or 33.95% voting in favor. 

The measure would have increased monthly taxes on a $100,000 home by $9, or $107.96 annually. 

Currently, the NRHEG school district does not have any additional operating funding approved by voters. In a study released by the school in 2019, NRHEG ranked 276th out of 332 Minnesota school districts in revenue received.

About Tyler Julson

Tyler Julson covers sports for the Albert Lea Tribune.

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