North metro school districts seek operating, tech levies

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 9, 2012 - 5:25 PM

Osseo and Elk River say measures are needed, not only to avoid budget cuts but also to keep up with evolving requirements.

On Nov. 6, voters in two northwest metro school districts will be asked to renew operating levies and approve additional targeted education spending.

Osseo is seeking an operating levy increase of $9 million a year for five years and a capital project levy of $5 million per year for 10 years for technological equipment, infrastructure and training.

Elk River is seeking a renewal of one of its operating levies, and an additional $6 million levy per year for 10 years to enhance curriculum and techn

ology and also expand free all-day, every day kindergarten for every family in the district.

Both districts warn that failure to approve operating levies will result in budget-cutting, at the expense of teaching staff, electives, co-curricular and other programming, and that additional funds will help them to stay in step with changing educational requirements.

Osseo

Osseo's operating levy would provide an additional $9 million a year for five years. For the owner of median-priced home valued at $190,000, that's about $160 in additional taxes per year, or $13 per month. The district last approved an operating levy in 2007. Another five years remains on that levy.

School officials maintain that without the $385 per-student increase, the district will be forced to cut $14 million from its budget over the next two years. That's on top of $18 million cut over the past five years and another $6 million in district discretionary savings.

"Even though the economy has been not advancing, there are costs that continue to increase," said Kim Riesgraf, the district's assistant superintendent of administration. She cited expenses such as fuel, health care and employee contracts that have continued to grow, even as state funding has not kept pace. In addition, with growing poverty in the district, students are coming to school with more needs.

"So that's what this is really about," she said. "It costs more to do the same thing, just like it costs more to drive our cars than it did in 2008. ... We need additional money to continue doing what we need to do to continue making progress for student achievement."

The district already has plans in place to begin cost-cutting strategy sessions in November if the levy does not pass. Nothing has been decided, but it's likely that the brunt of the cuts would come in personnel, including teachers. The result would be more-crowded classrooms, fewer programs and big cuts to those programs that are not mandatory, even if some consider them essential, such as extracurricular programs, career and college prep and the district's successful intervention programs to help at-risk students stay in school. The district just went through a round of school closings in 2008, so that is not a likely remedy, Riesgraf said.

The district also is asking voters to approve a levy to provide a stable source of funding for technology. The levy seeks to raise $5 million a year for 10 years to provide technology equipment, infrastructure and staff training.

The district never has had a dedicated budget line for technology, said Osseo Chief Technology Officer Tim Wilson. Even though the district has spent resources on computers, projectors, sound systems and software, it lacks the money to maintain and replace what it has, much less continue to find ways to innovate using technology.

"A lot of people would consider a computer that is six years old well out of date, but we get six years out of them because we have to," he said. "Our technology doesn't stand still. Every year we're asking computers to do more and more, with the applications teachers and students are using for their learning."

In spring 2010, the district adopted a set of classroom technology standards that include reliable wireless Internet access, ceiling-mounted projectors and document cameras and wireless devices to allow teachers to manipulate digital displays remotely. Through ninth grade, all classrooms also have amplification systems. Still, not every classroom has reached that standard.

"We've spent money installing equipment that teachers use every day and depend on," Wilson said. "But that equipment is going to have to be replaced and soon. ... Our concern is we don't have the funds available to maintain it and to replace it when it fails."

If the levy is approved, Osseo still will be below the middle of the pack for technology funding among the largest metro-area schools.

Elk River

Elk River has two levy questions on the November ballot.

The first would renew the current $5.75 million operating levy for another 10 years. It would not result in a tax increase for homeowners.

The second, which cannot pass without the first, would provide the district with an additional $6 million a year for 10 years to enhance curriculum and technology and to expand kindergarten to an all-day, every-day program, provided for free to all families. That's a $16 per-month increase, or about $192 per year, for the average $175,000 house.

"The first question provides 5 percent of the operating budget," said Charlie Blesener, the district's director of community engagement. "If that is not renewed we would need to make cuts commensurate with that."

The second question would move the district from a 10-year curriculum cycle to one that would allow for updates every seven years. That would put Elk River in line with Minnesota Department of Education recommendations. That goal goes hand-in-hand with the desire for technological improvements, since curriculum upgrades now are likely to come in electronic form, as opposed to textbooks and workbooks, Blesener said.

A working group that included school staff and community members recommended last spring that the district move toward the kindergarten expansion, after studying research that supports it, especially for low-income students.

"Studies show that more time on-task -- all-day kindergartens -- are consistently more effective than programs that are half as long," Blesener said. "Intensity counts. Those programs tend to result in a stronger foundation of learning skills, including social and emotional development, and you're more likely to close the achievement gap early on in the career of the child."

The additional funds also will help to close a gap that likely has not been apparent in the district, Blesener said.

"The last two or three years we've gotten by because of one-time money," he said, noting that the district has received about a million dollars a year in federal stimulus funds and state compensatory education dollars.

"If both questions fail, we're looking at reduction of $12 million over two years," he said, or as many as 200 staff positions.

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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