With ongoing financial issues in the district, Alexandria Public Schools Superintendent Julie Critz held a community information meeting Tuesday, Sept. 24 at the Discovery Middle School media center. Only a handful of people showed up, but voters still have weeks to learn more about the single-question referendum appearing on the ballot on Nov. 5.

If approved by voters, the additional funding would help the district maintain or reduce class sizes, continue with specialist teachers (for example, music, art and science), expand mental health support, maintain or expand what it calls real-world work experiences at the middle school and high school, and provide more financial stability for the district.

This levy is different from the bond that helped build the new high school, because bonds are used for school construction projects and levies affect student learning.

The school district is proposing a 10-year, voter-approved operating levy with a phased-in approach where the amount taxpayers would pay would increase incrementally over the first three years.

If approved, the levy would be for $375 per student in the 2020-21 school year, $485 per student in the 2021-22 school year and $595 per student in the 2022-23 school year. It would remain at that level for the remainder of the 10-year period.

The tax impact for homeowners would also be phased in over time. The first year of the operating levy would amount to nearly an extra $120 per year for the owner of a $220,000 home, which is the average home value in the district. In year two, the tax increase on the average home would amount to about $34 more than the first year.

“We’re not asking for anything that is outside the needs of our community,” said Jill Johnson, supervisor of communications and marketing in the district. “We can’t just barely survive, we need to look to thrive.”

The district dealt with a $1.1 million shortfall this past year. Administration cut more than $500,000 of its budget which included reducing two bus routes, technology allocation and other reductions, but teachers’ jobs were not cut. Most of the remaining half of the deficit was plugged when the state legislature approved a 2 percent hike in education funding, which was more than the district had budgeted.

“We’ve been without an operating levy and we’ve still provided a really excellent service,” Critz said. Next year, the district estimates it will be about $2 million short if voters don’t approve the referendum.

Deficit spending is not sustainable, Critz said, noting that state education funding has not kept up with inflation or increased costs. If the state funding had kept up with inflation since 2003, the district would’ve received $3 million more for the 2018-2019 school year.

Nearly 90 percent of the district’s revenues come from state and federal funding, with the remainder from local taxpayers. The district says it is in the bottom 10% of all Minnesota school districts for general education funding, and it is also one of the only school districts in the area without a voter-approved operating levy.

Alexandria’s last operating levy, which was approved by voters in 2004, expired in 2014. It has gone the past five years without going back to voters for another one.

“We’re asking for what we need, when we need it,” Critz said. “That’s why we’re coming to the voters now.”

She said the main focus of the school board was to make sure the district was asking for money in a conservative way and making sure it’s fiscally sensitive.

“We don’t want property values to go down,” Critz said. “We’re that perfectly-sized community and the property wealth speaks to the economic vitality of the area.”

For questions, call 320-762-2141, extension 4223, or email referendum@alexschools.org. More information, along with a tax impact calculator, can be found on the project’s website, https://www.alexschools.org/referendum.