ACGC levy ballots trickling in
GROVE CITY -- Ballots are slowly being returned to the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City district office for a mail-in election to decide whether to increase school revenue by raising taxes.
Just before Thanksgiving, about 500 of the 3,689 ballots had been returned. They were put in a locked box where they'll remain until 8 p.m. Dec. 1, when they'll be counted by election judges.
The outcome of the referendum will determine just how big the budget cuts will be at ACGC.
If the levy is approved, a list of cuts -- including elimination of at least one program and reduction of teaching staff -- are set to be implemented, said Superintendent Pamela Kyllingstad
If the levy fails, the list will get longer.
ACGC needs a combination of budget cuts and new revenue to get out of statutory operating debt. The district was informed this fall by the state that its level of debt was too great in relation to its dwindling general fund reserves, which put the district into statutory operating debt.
Once a district is officially in that category, it must develop a plan to get out of the situation within three years. New revenue generated by the proposed levy and budget cuts make up that plan. Budget cuts alone aren't enough to get out of statutory operating debt.
The district currently has a seven-year, $650-per-pupil levy in place, which voters approved in 2003.
Declining enrollment, flat state funding for education, long bus routes that have eaten up the fuel budget and a desire to maintain high school programs the school board viewed as crucial to students' success are some of the reasons cited for getting into statutory operating debt. Despite the 2003 levy, the added revenue didn't cover the losses.
The new proposal would collect an additional $450 for each pupil-unit and would raise an estimated $438,000 each year.
The school board and administration have conducted community meetings in all three towns in the district. Kyllingstad said 30 to 35 people attended each event. Although residents had concerns and questions about the district's financial and educational health, the overall response was positive, she said. People were concerned about "how to keep good programs for kids," she said.
In Atwater, the ballots arrived the day after residents had received their property tax statements from the county which showed Atwater city taxes increasing 30 percent, which caused more than a little concern about paying for additional school taxes. A few days later, the Atwater City Council reduced its levy to reflect an increase of 8.6 percent. Kyllingstad said she was hoping that news would get around Atwater before they voted on the school referendum.
The proposed school levy would increase property taxes by $90 a year on a $60,000 home and $150 on a $100,000 home. For ag land, the levy would apply only to the house, garage and one acre of land. Seasonal recreational residential property is not affected by the proposed levy.
If the levy is approved, a number of budget cuts would be made, including elimination of the assistant elementary principal, the dean of students and a half-time industrial technology position; and elimination of the Family and Consumer Science class and the associated leadership program and reduction of a teacher.
There would also be reductions in the gifted and talented program, media/library staff and a secretarial position; and a reduction of post-contract hours for the alternative learning program, agriculture and dean of students.
There will also be longer bus routes; the driver's education classroom program will be held in the summer for a fee; and fund-raisers will finance busing elementary kids to field trips.
If the levy fails, Kyllingstad the school board will develop an additional list of cuts that would "take a deep bite" out of personnel across the board. Programs in music, art, agriculture, physical education and extra-curricular programs would also be considered for cuts, according to written information provided by the district. The school board would also have to consider whether or not the district can continue to support three campuses.
"The board has said everything is on the table," said Kyllingstad.
Kyllingstad confessed she is an "eternal Pollyanna" and said if people realize the value of the educational programs at ACGC, they will support the levy increase. The referendum, she said, "is such an important event for the district."
On the same day the Tribune interviewed Kyllingstad about the referendum, nine ACGC graduates were in the auditorium talking to ACGC seniors about college and work.
Besides advice about avoiding credit cards, how to get a new college roommate and the importance of getting a job that pays for health insurance, the alumni also talked about how ACGC prepared them for their future.
"I was really surprised at how prepared I was. Coming from a small school, I didn't think I would be," said Jessica Halvorson, a 2002 ACGC graduate who has studied in Russia and will be spending four months in New Zealand as part of her college curriculum.
Meghan Wall, a 2005 graduate, said ACGC's strong biology program helped put her "ahead of a lot of the kids in my class" in college.
Christy Vejtruba, a 2001 graduate from ACGC's Alternative Learning Program, said the experience there helped prepare her for the challenges of completing a four-year degree in journalism. She's now working for a newspaper.
Dylan Anderson, a 2003 graduate, said ACGC had "great teachers" that helped prepare him for the welding program he attended at Ridgewater College in Willmar. "I'm a hands-on kind of guy," he said.
Shane Hagstrom, a 1999 graduate, is currently a teacher at ACGC and serves on the Atwater City Council. He also sat with the panel of alumni and gave his advice about college, work and the importance of doing well in high school. He warned the students that college classes held in large auditoriums with hundreds of students are a lot different than the one-on-one attention they get in small ACGC classes.