Aitkin School

In a discussion of policy, best practice and best bang for its buck, the Aitkin School Board came to a clear conclusion July 27 in its work session.

The district needs more help from its taxpayers.

To that end, the board came to an agreement to pursue a capital projects levy, which it must submit by early August for a review and comment document to the Minnesota Department of Education.

A special meeting of the school board was scheduled for Tuesday to approve the document going to the state.

The board discussed whether to go with a capital project levy versus an operating referendum, with the CPL gaining more popularity because it would spread the tax impact beyond just permanent residents.

The capital projects levy would allow the extra tax money to be collected from seasonal residents as well as permanent residents, at an increase of 2.72%. Stifter explained that with the capital projects levy, a homestead property of $150,000 value would see an increase of $33 a year.

If the district had gone with the operational referendum option, the increase would be $90 for the same property. The capital projects levy would allow the district to address technology purchases and an every-other-year bus purchase, on which the district is already behind due to recent budget issues.

“That would clear up some of our general fund dollars,” said Superintendent Dan Stifter. “So we don’t have to be in such a drastic budget-cutting mode.”

The capital projects levy would go into effect for 10 years, but requires a “yes” vote by district residents. The question would likely be on the November general election ballot.

The district is planning to ask for $500,000 each year over the 10-year period.

According to Jodie Zesbaugh of Ehler and Associates, Aitkin Independent School District #1 is one of only nine districts in the state without any voter-approved funding.

The district has been experiencing declining enrollment, with another 22 students expected to have been lost from the 2019-20 school year. Overall, the district had to make cuts of about $300,000 for the 2020-21 school year, including cuts to staff.

That, combined with potential loss of students due to the COVID-19 pandemic, had school board members discussing the options at the work session. The July 30 announcement by the state, which translates to the expectation that Aitkin County schools will be in full session come fall, likely relieves some of the pressure, but perhaps not all.

The topic of in-person learning being the plan for the fall was also scheduled for discussion at the Tuesday meeting.

After working through several pages of information provided by Stifter and getting questions answered by Zesbaugh, the board – which was minus two members – came to the decision that the capital projects levy was more palatable.

Questions were raised, though, about finalizing the district’s long-term facilities maintenance plan, as well as having clear answers where the money would go.

“I understand we need the money,” said board member Dennis Hasskamp. “It’s just where it comes from and where it’s applied.”

John Chute, meanwhile, wanted a long-term plan so the board would be able to move forward without having to continually ask district residents for more money.

“What’s going to change?” Chute asked. “How many times can we go to the voters and say, ‘we need to do this again?’”

All board members agreed that cuts will need to be made in the future, but that the money is needed now to fix the issues the district is facing with needing more technology and new buses.

“It’ll definitely relieve some of the pressure on our general fund,” said board member Joe Ryan. “We’re asking the right questions.”

Editor’s Note: In last week’s story, teacher Kelly Blake was listed as resigning but now returning part-time.

Blake had, in fact, retired, but will return this year to teach Madrigals, handbell choir, concert choir and eighth-grade general music, as well as directing the one-act play and the school’s musical.

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