$12.9 million referendum looks to ease school needs

  • Article by: ERIN ADLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 26, 2014 - 2:00 PM

West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan District voters will decide May 6 on an early childhood center and security upgrades.

In less than two weeks, the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan School District will ask voters for nearly $13 million to meet needs in areas that many Twin Cities districts will find familiar — early childhood, security and technology.

“I think all of these things are something that other districts are moving toward, in some shape or form,” Superintendent Nancy Allen-Mastro said.

The district is posing two questions to residents on May 6: a $1.7 million operating levy renewal and increase for technology, and a $11.2 million bond issue to construct a $7.5 million early childhood center and improve districtwide security.

For owners of a $200,000 home in the district, passing both measures will mean an additional $57 in property taxes annually.

Unlike many schools, the district’s enrollment is growing for the fifth consecutive year, with projections of 120 additional students next year, Allen-Mastro said.

Many of those families have young children, so adding a dedicated early learning center to Heritage E-STEM Middle School makes sense. The site is near the area that is growing the most, said Matthew Klein, a school board member.

“The board really wants to declare our dedication to early childhood learning because of the proven benefits it has,” Klein said.

Klein, a physician, said early childhood programs have myriad benefits, from better health outcomes to reducing the achievement gap, which the district has had trouble doing.

By building the 22,000-square-foot center, the district will be able to increase programming to meet demand. It will also free up space at the elementary and middle schools, where early childhood classrooms are now spread out, Allen-Mastro said.

In addition, $3.2 million of the bond proceeds would be used to update security in every school. The district wants to remodel or move entrances so visitors must pass through the main office, add lockdown buttons at middle schools and buy more security cameras, Allen-Mastro said.

The first ballot question is seeking funding to renew and increase the current $490,000 technology levy, expiring this year, to $1.7 million a year for 10 years.

“The existing funding wasn’t really sustaining our existing technology,” said Dave Sandum, technology coordinator.

All of the district’s magnet schools have one iPad per student, thanks to a grant. Passing the levy will “give those opportunities to everybody,” he said.

Third- through eighth-graders would get iPads while younger grades would have one device for every two kids. At the high school, students would have the choice to bring their own device or pick a tablet, laptop or iPad provided by the district.

“The goal of this is all about personalized learning,” Sandum said.

Allen-Mastro said that having cutting-edge technology will bring the curriculum into the 21st century. It also lets teachers work differently, allowing for things like flipped classrooms, where students watch lectures at home and complete assignments in class.

The district is holding the referendum now, rather than in November, because it wants classes held at the new early learning center beginning in September 2015, Klein said.

If the referendum doesn’t pass, the construction and technology projects will be delayed, with some completed in smaller increments over time. The district will have to explore leasing space for early learning, which isn’t economical in the long term, she said.

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