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Turnout sparse for Lake Park-Audubon levy hearing

About a dozen people showed up Thursday evening at Audubon Elementary School for the first of two informational meetings about a proposed increase in the operating levy for the Lake Park-Audubon School District.

The district is asking voters to approve a $750-per-student, seven-year operating levy next month.

This is not the same as the building bond levy that's been on the ballot the past few years. This money is for regular school operations, not new or improved buildings.

The district's current $500-per-student operating levy runs out after next year. If approved by voters Nov. 3, the higher levy would cancel the existing operating levy for next year and replace it with the new levy.

The extra money is badly needed because state funding has been essentially frozen for the past eight years. The district had to cut more than $225,000 from its budget this year, the administrator and two principals have agreed to a wage freeze, and the district is asking teachers to accept a pay freeze.

The current operating levy brings in about $343,000 per year.

The new levy would generate about $515,000 per year.

The school district's total share of the property tax bill is currently $130 on a $100,000 residential homestead.

That would increase to a total of $169 if voters approve the new operating levy, still one of the lowest in the region.

Several people in the audience asked questions at the meeting.

One woman asked what would happen to special needs students if the levy fails to pass.

Superintendent Dale Hogie said there is not likely to be cuts in special education staff, since their caseloads are full already.

"The kids that will be hurt are the kids that don't have a legally-mandated program," said Board member Vicky Grondahl. "They'll get hurt with bigger class sizes."

One man insisted that the students that are open-enrolling out of the district are the "top students," but Hogie said "that's not accurate," and that open enrollment affects students of various academic achievement levels.

"There's no way for any of us to make a determination that the kids leaving are the better students," he said.

Another man called on the district to maintain consistently high standards and high expectations for students.

Another asked whether the district will lose state funding if it fails to meet the Adequate Yearly Progress requirements of No Child Left Behind.

If AYP is not met, the district will have to redirect funds towards specific student groups that aren't meeting the standards -- lower income or minority students, for example.

Another asked what will happen to the $500-per-student levy if the new $750-per-student levy is shot down by voters.

"If the levy fails, we'll have one more year of the $500-per-student levy," Hogie said.

"Then you fall off the deep end," the man added

"The district cannot continue doing what it is doing now with a $500-per-student levy," Hogie explained. "The state is not scheduled to give us additional revenue next year -- we will have flat funding again."

If state funding had simply kept up with the 2.9 percent rate of inflation the past eight years, the district would be sitting in much better financial shape.

It would have revenues about $300,000 a year higher than it does now.

The district has been frugal with its spending increases, which have lagged far behind the rate of inflation -- expenditures would be about $700,000 a year higher had they kept pace with inflation over the past eight years, Hogie said.

To help solve its own budget problem, the state is postponing 27 percent of its payments to school districts for a year.

The district has been using aid anticipation bonds in order to operate. The bonds are paid back when the state money arrives. The district has actually made money off the system the past few years, when the state only withheld 10 percent, but it probably won't now that it is withholding 27 percent. That's because there won't be as much time to earn interest on the bonds until they have to be used for operating expenses, Hogie said.

Board member Bryan Anderson said that "there's a misconception out there on aid anticipation and the money we borrow for it. The misconception is that we are borrowing that money in addition to money we get from the state. That's not the case -- the money we are borrowing is that 27 percent being delayed by the state -- when the state pays the district, the district pays off the aid anticipation bond."

The district's aid anticipation activity has increased the past few years because the amount being withheld by the state has increased, he said.

"It isn't us borrowing more," Anderson said.

The district thought long and hard about asking for an operational levy increase this year, Grondahl said.

"Times are tough, and it had been my hope to leave it at $500 (per student)," she said. "We really wanted to stick to that amount."

But with little or no hope of rescue from the state, which is looking at big deficits the next few years, the school board had to be proactive, she said.

"We are all longtime residents of this area. We believe strongly in our school system and we're very proud of it, but unless we take some steps and put some money in that we're not getting from the state, that quality will not be maintained," she said. "I had three kids go through school here, I know the kind of job we do -- it will take an extra sacrifice by everyone to maintain this quality."

Added Board member Darrel Pederson: "The teachers put their hearts and souls into it here, I'm very proud of what's going on in this school district, and you should be too."

The district will hold another informational meeting on the proposed operational levy at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the high school in Lake Park.