The Waconia School Board certified the school district’s 2021 tax levy and reviewed its financial picture at its final meeting of 2020 last Monday, Dec. 14.

The levy certification and “truth in taxation” public hearing is required annually by state law to share information about school funding coming from district taxpayers for the next year. The figure for 2021 amounts to around $18.5 million for Waconia Public Schools. That’s a $2.2 million, or 13.6 percent increase over last year and reflects voter approval of an operating referendum in November, which is expected to generate about $1.9 million in additional revenue annually over the next 10 years.

The school district went to voters this fall with a proposed operating levy of an additional $410 per pupil to support Waconia’s educational programs and remove the district from statutory operating debt posed by a special education funding gap.

The school district’s fiscal year coincides with the school year, running July 1 through June 30, so 2021 taxes won’t provide additional revenue until the 2021-2022 school budget year, according to Finance Director Todd Swanson. But the district has made some inroads in debt reduction from 2019 to 2020, as reflected in a financial audit review that was also part of last week’s meeting.

As of June 30, the district’s fund balance stood at a negative $6 million, down from $6.4 million at the end of its 2019 fiscal year. With earlier budget reductions and the influx of additional revenue, that debt could be erased in the next 3-4 years, according to Swanson. The school board will begin budget discussions for the next school year in January.

The school district’s total budget for the current year amounts to $60.2 million. About $48 million of that is in the general fund, the bulk of which goes to teacher salaries and instruction. Nearly $9.4 million is for debt service, about $3.3 for community service, $2.4 million for food service, and the remainder in other funds, such as internal expenses, building construction and trusts. State funding accounts for about 80 percent of Waconia Public Schools general expenses. The state also sets formulas to determine revenues, sets tax policy for local schools and establishes maximum authorized property tax levy.

In other business last Monday, the school board thanked departing board members Cathy Thom and Ken Varble for their service during their terms. Thom served three terms, a total of 12 years, and was recognized by Board Chair Dana Geller for her mentoring, policy support and legislative advocacy for the school district. Varble served from 2013-2016 and returned in 2020 to fill the remaining term of a board member who resigned early in the year.

Latest on school learning models

The school board also heard from parents anxious for the district to resume hybrid/in-person learning and student activities. Waconia Public Schools have been guided by number of COVID-19 cases in the county and state executive orders in its learning model decision making, and moved early this month to full distance learning.

School leaders currently are working through the latest executive orders from Gov. Tim Walz announced last Wednesday that allows Minnesota elementary schools to re-open for in-person instruction next month.

Superintendent Pat Devine said the latest orders align with the plan the Waconia school district announced Nov. 13 to pause in-person classes from Thanksgiving until Jan. 19. He indicated pre-school through grade 5 students will return to in-person learning at that time.

The latest guidance is based on an evolving understanding of the virus that suggests young kids are less susceptible to serious complications from COVID-19 and that more has been learned about how to reduce the potential for spread in schools, according to the governor’s guidance.

For high school and middle school students, any return to in-person or hybrid learning will continue to be driven by the number of COVID-19 cases in the county. Devine said another review of those numbers with public health officials is scheduled for Jan. 4.

Meanwhile, under the latest state executive orders, youth sports can resume practice Jan. 4, but not games. Additionally, organized sports activity is no longer directly tied to county case data or school learning model. Further guidance regarding the resumption of practices will be forthcoming.

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