Declining enrollment and subsequent dwindling state funding over the past few years led to staffing cuts in Aitkin, and more could be on the way if the proposed capital projects levy isn’t passed, the school district reported.
The levy requests an extra $500,000 a year for the next 10 years. Of that sum, $450,000 would go toward the purchase, replacement, support and maintenance of technology, technology systems and software. The other $50,000 would be allocated to purchasing new school buses and other transportation vehicles.
About 65% of the district’s funding comes from the state. The average Minnesota school district receives about $14,800 per student each year from the state. Aitkin receives $9,752, as it is one of just nine districts in the state that doesn’t have any sort of voter-approved funds from a levy or referendum.
Enrollment sits at 1,121 students right now but continues to decrease, Superintendent Dan Stifter said Friday, Oct. 23. And the lower the enrollment, the lower the state funds. In recent years, the district cut the director of teaching and learning curriculum specialist, a job now absorbed by the rest of the administration staff, along with a part-time elementary music teacher and some paraprofessionals. Last year, the elementary school went from four sections to three, reducing the number of classroom teachers. A successful levy likely won’t bring these positions back, Stifter said, but it could prevent future cuts.
This year marks the fifth year students in seventh through 12th grade have been 1:1 with their own devices. It’s also the first year for kindergarten through sixth grade students. Those in kindergarten through fifth grade have iPads, while older students have MacBooks. Money from the levy would be spent to maintain a four-year rotation of student and staff devices.
Funds would also support 12 key technology areas: servers, wired network, wireless network, building security, server software, classroom software, interactive boards, audio, printing. Offsite backup and data protection, and battery powered backup systems. Specific upgrades include:
Upgrading infrastructure, including servers, cabling and Wi-Fi equipment.
Transitioning away from computer labs.
Replacing smart boards.
Maintaining equipment necessary for career and technical education programs.
The district runs 20-25 buses, which average anywhere from 60 to 100 miles a day. Previously, Stifter said a new bus was purchased each year, then every other year as funds dwindled. But now, the district hasn’t seen a new bus in about five or six years.
“Which puts us in jeopardy of having our buses grounded by the (Minnesota) Department of Transportation because of their condition,” Transportation Director Tom Bruss said in an informational levy video on the district’s website. “I think in five years we could be in dire circumstances.”
Each bus in Aitkin typically lasts about 10 years and 135,000 miles. Ideally, the district should replace at least three buses in the next couple years, Stifter said.
Every bus is equipped with inside camera systems and stop arm cameras. But as those cameras get older and older, finding new parts gets harder and harder, Bruss said. Then, new camera systems have to be installed at a cost of $3,000-$4,000 per bus.
Not all buses in Aitkin had auxiliary heating systems installed when purchased, meaning in extreme cold temperatures, drivers can’t run both the defrost and the heat at the same time.
“There’s not enough power there,” Bruss said. “It’s not a good feeling for a driver. It’s kind of scary on the road, actually.”
Each bus costs roughly $100,000 after being outfitted with all the necessary equipment, so if the levy passes, the district would be able to purchase a new bus every other year.
If the levy passes, property taxes on a home valued at $111,600 (the median value in the city of Aitkin) would see an increase of about $2 a month. Those valued at $180,000 (the median value in Aitkin County) would increase by about $3 a month. Estimated tax increases for other properties for the next 10 years are as follows:
$100,000 home — about $19 a year, or $1.58 a month.
$150,000 home — about $34 a year, or $2.83 a month.
$200,000 home — about $49 a year, or $4.08 a month.
$300,000 home — about $78 a year, or $6.50 a month.
$400,000 home — about $108 a year, or $9 a month.
$100,000 commercial — about $40 a year, or $3.33 a month.
$250,000 commercial — about $115 a year, or $9.58 a month.
$500,000 commercial — about $250 a year, or $20.83 a month.
$100,000 seasonal residential — about $27 a year, or $2.25 a month.
$200,000 seasonal residential — about $54 a year, or $4.15 a month.
$500,000 seasonal residential — about $135 a year, or $$11.25 a month.
Right now, Aitkin Public Schools has the lowest school property taxes of surrounding areas, according to information provided by Ehlers, a financial advisory firm. Annual property taxes on a $180,000 home in the Aitkin School District are about $290 a month, compared to $315 in McGregor, $400 in Crosby-Ironton, $687 in Pillager, $709 in Brainerd and $821 in Pierz.
If the levy were to fail, the district reports it would have to make cuts to the post-secondary enrollment options program. Last year, Aitkin students earned about $184,000 worth of credits at Central Lakes College through the program.
In the transportation area, the district reports it would be forced to run buses longer than recommended if the levy fails, and maintenance costs would increase.
Stifter hopes the community keeps those issues in mind when filling out their ballots this year.
“I’m encouraging people to, one, get out and vote. It’s never probably been more important than now to get out and vote,” Stifter said. “And we would like people to consider what the school district provides for our community, for our students and families and take that into account as they make a decision on whether to support the capital projects levy or not. … It’s fairly reasonable with what we’re asking, and we’re just looking for support from our community so we can provide some financial stability for the future.”
District residents can vote on or before Nov. 3. For voting information, including how and where to vote, visit www.sos.state.mn.us/elections-voting/.
For more information on the levy, visit home.isd1.org/levy-information.html.