Straw polls, resources, discussion on the school levy questions


The Northfield School Board is holding a special election on November 8 to replace the operating levy for ten years and renew the capital projects levy for ten years. See the District’s 2011 levy election web page. On that page are other links: Levy Costs | Levy Impact | Video Overview | Voting Information | Download a PDF copy of the District’s Levy Guide.

Also see Citizens for Quality Education (CQE). They are “a volunteer group dedicated to supporting Northfield Public Schools. CQE’s focus is to ensure passage of the Northfield School District levy referenda.” There is a CQE Facebook page.

The Nfld News has published 6 of a planned 8 articles about the levy election. They don’t make it easy to find them and the headlines for some make them sound like opinion pieces, but here’s what I’ve found thus far:

Levy-related opinion pieces in the Nfld News:
Nfld Patch:

Take your time to get informed, add your comments to the message thread attached to this blog post, and then weigh in on these two straw polls:

Update 11/8, 10 PM: I’ve closed both straw polls. You can view the results anytime.

74 thoughts on “Straw polls, resources, discussion on the school levy questions”

  1. The Nfld News is also running a straw poll on their website (lower right sidebar) with this all-in-one question:

    “If the school levy referendum vote was held today, how would you vote?”

    Current Nfld News poll results:

    In favor 34.03% (49 votes)

    Against 58.33% (84 votes)

    Undecided 5.56% (8 votes)

    Wouldn’t vote 2.08% (3 votes)

    Total Votes: 144

  2. The teachers’ contract settlement was reached yesterday. This ought to embarrass Rep Pat Garofalo who has been peddling some kind of strange paranoia. From Garofalo’s NFN guest column of 10/7:

    “In Northfield and other districts, taxpayers would be foolish to vote for yet another tax increase without knowing how that money is going to be spent — yet that is exactly what is being asked of them. As of the date of this article, the Northfield School District and the local teacher’s union have yet to reach an agreement on a new contract. Rest assured, this is not by accident. A common tactic that the teacher’s union uses is to defer agreement on a contract until AFTER the local levy vote has taken place. The local union will then adjust its demands based on whether you pass a tax increase or not. The more you raise your taxes — the more salary, benefits, and other employee costs the teacher’s union will demand. Absent a contract agreement before the levy vote in November, no promise can be made of maintaining services for children. This bait and switch tactic may serve the adults well — but it’s a raw deal for the kids.”

  3. Garofalo also peddled his “teachers waiting until after levy vote” theory in this KYMN interview:

    http://kymnradio.net/audio/misc/Garafalo.mp3

    I”m wondering what others think about Garofalo’s legitimacy in weighing in our local levy. He is from Farmington, and does represent some people in the northern reaches of Northfield’s school district. But does that give him the right to tote his carpetbag into our local levy issue?

    I see that his efforts have not been met with approval in other outstate areas, ie Mankato, Rochester and Marshall.

    http://mankatofreepress.com/editorials/x2127774582/Our-View-School-levy-attacks-misleading-irresponsible

    http://www.bluestemprairie.com/bluestemprairie/2011/09/marshall-independent-gives-garofalo-another-thumbs-down-for-levy-meddling.html

    And MPR summed up Garofalo’s tactics, and the disapproval he has had from some from his own party in this story:

    http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2011/09/20/gop-lawmakers-question-garofalo-anti-school-levy-campaign/

  4. Curt, well put. As the spouse of a public school teacher, I was livid at Rep. Garofalo’s piece in the Northfield News. I was raised in a staunchly Republican family, but it’s tactics like Garofalo used that make me embarrassed to admit such. I hope the people in his district vote him out of office next time around.

  5. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and will never be.” – Thomas Jefferson

    It seems that our current society (locally and nationally) is promoting the former at the ultimate expense of the latter.

  6. Ben, good quote. I also like “The love of books is the golden key that opens the enchanted door” by Andrew Lang. I found that over the door to a library.

    It is very hard to know what amount of money is enough for schools today. Rep. Garofalo gave a good position statement on his views and urging people to get information and make up their minds. I didn’t think that was out of line at all. And for those who thought he was ‘sticking his nose’ into our local affairs, remember that he represents a good chunk of Northfield.

    The district is asking to increase our local support by just over $1 million. If the contract is approved, about $750,000 of that will be consumed by the new contract. That leaves about $250,000 right now for ‘improvements’ to the school system. Is it right to devote three-fourths of the new levy amount to that status quo? I don’t know.

    I do solidy believe in a quality educational system. I served 16 years on the Northfield school board and every year worked to make the schools better and better. I do hope we have not hit a plateau in this country with our schools. With the declining performances and districts with massively low graduation rates (not Northfield) it seems we are in trouble. And I don’t think our educational troubles will be cured with more money.

    That said, I never liked the attempt by the state to take over 100% school funding in Minnesota (under the Ventura administration) I liked the arrangement where the state paid 80% and the local taxpayers—all the property owners—-paid the remaining 20%. As local consumers, we need to have some ‘skin in the game’ with our schools.

  7. Ray, I’d respectfully disagree that Rep. Garofalo points out the “facts.”

    He says the teacher’s union and local Democrats are pushing the levy. Those bodies aren’t involved, and he knows that. It’s the school district and our elected school board members, who are chosen without party affiliation attached. Sure, if you know the school-board members personally, you may know their political leanings, but I sure don’t. If you read some of the quotes from Garofalo’s own party members, they essentially say the same thing–political parties aren’t (and shouldn’t, in their opinion) be weighing in on local school district issues.

    Garofalo’s other “fact fail” is that the levy was a scam by the teachers union to extract a big pay day. That isn’t the case now since the contract has reached settlement, and illuminates that Garofalo was grasping at straws in his argument to defeat the levy. A 1% increase, after two years of zero increases, is hardly the payday Garofalo accuses the district and union of plotting. Plus, the guy should know himself how little teachers make–his wife is a teacher in the Farmington schools!

    He may represent a large chunk of Northfield, but I don’t think his intention was for his constituents to find out the facts. He wanted to provide his audience with misleading information and for them to vote the levy down. His intentions, in his own mind, may have been pure and right, but the way his column read and his accusatory tone towards the teachers union was, for me, unjust.

  8. Eric,

    You are right. Garafalo does shade the “facts” to suit his purposes. I would not be surprised to find out (for sure) that his intention was to mislead the voters and affect the outcome.

    On the other hand, the school district and the “iindependent” committee supporting the levy are, in my opinion, also distorting “facts” and misleading voters–albeit in the opposite direction.

    First of all, I take issue with your assertion that the teacher’s union and district aren’t involved in the levy vote. “Citizens for Quality Education” is co-chaired by a teacher in the district and a former PTO president. They take their info directly from the school district. . They are hardly independent voices.

    Second, they state in their promotional materials that if they levy is not passed this year, cuts of 900,000 will have to be made in 2013-14, followed by even larger cuts the following year. Not strictly true. Those cuts will happen ONLY if THIS levy vote fails, the almost-certainly guaranteed levy in 2012 fails, and the levy dollars fall to zero. That’s a bunch of ifs that the district isn’t exactly being forthcoming about.

    I am not a fan of Garafalo. He’s my elected “representative” but I can’t think of a single issue we agree on, nor can I recall a time where I’ve contacted him and felt listened to. I’ll vote for just about any candidate who runs against him. I think the shifting of dollars and the holdbacks suck.

    But, Garafalo has just as much right to state his views as anyone else. And if you hold him to a standard of full and absolute disclosure, then hold the district to the same standard.

  9. I’ll vote for the levy propositions, of course, but am frustrated with our collective lack of ambition. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that our middle schoolers, for example, are going to thrive in classes that are well over 30 kids, as many/most of them are. Even the most dedicated and energetic teachers are going to have a hard time cultivating each kid’s love of learning when they’ve got that many bodies in the chairs. If the district gets everything it is asking for, I have a hard time seeing us doing anything but staying essentially where we are, which I fear is not nearly as good as most of us seem to think it is.

  10. Eric, you need to make sure you understand the propopsed contract settlement. I heard the ‘1%’ figure that the Superintendent talked about on the radio, but the reality is quite a bit different. The contract will end up costing the district between 6.8% and 7% over the two year period…once you factor in lane increases, step increases, health insurance benefit increases, retirement increases, etc. The bottom line is what really matters to the district as that is what they have to pay. As I noted in #6 above the settlement will consume about $750,000 of the new levy money in the first year. I am not saying that this is a bad deal for the public. I know people need to arrive at fair wage payments for hard work. This is simply an “is fact” that should not be disputed.

    I agree with Kathie that this levy issue is being pushed by what I consider inside folks. I wish that was not the case. We don’t have an across the board Vote Yes committee at work. I don’t know if that is because no one thought it was needed, or because no one agreed to take on the task. But most of our other levy votes have had well organized committees of citizens behind the levy.

    1. Ray…The school board’s levy info guide shows a budget increase of 1 million for school year 2012-2013 under the current levy. Is it safe to assume that this million is in place to cover the cost of the union settlement and they do not need the new levy for that funding?

  11. Curt, the numbers come from the district office, and one of the school board members. The disrict is good about providing a host of information like this. They obviously need to know what the bottom line is for any settlement they agree to, so it usually is readily available. There are always tiny variables to the cost of settlements, such as how many teachers will advance educational credits, etc. But the overall calculations are usually right on target.

  12. I’d be very interested to read comments to Bron Scherer’s guest column in the NNews today. Apparently he’s a CPA and knows how to analyze budgets (I freely admit this is not among my skill set).
    Is his analysis sound?

    I’ll attempt to post the link here, but as we all know, my skill set also does not extend to using the nifty features of word press.

    1. Kathie-
      You did very well on the link. Thanks for your efforts. I was struck by this set of statistics in the article

      The bottom line is that personnel costs to educate Northfield Public School students have increased 76 percent over the past 11 years and personnel count has increased 24 percent, but the number of total students is the same.

      If enrolment is steady, and costs have increased 76%, but class sizes are purported to be increasing, then it would appear that teachers’ salaries are not the driving factor. I also know that many of the “extras” in classrooms, such as subject related posters, etc., are provided by the teachers and parents’ own financial contributions now instead of the school district. This poses the question, where is the extra money going? I don’t think education can be compared to a business in that we are dealing with an intangible product. A business making widgets can try to cut costs of production or increase selling prices to keep the business going. The school system doesn’t sell its graduates for so many dollars.

      1. John – I think this is a fair question. Who are these 96 new positions? That’s the equivalent of an entire elementary school. My daughter’s fifth grade classroom has 29 children in it, so it clearly isn’t going towards more elementary home room teachers. In fact, there seem to be large classes at the middle school and high school as well. At the high school, classes with 30 – 40 students are common. I have a suspicion as to what these new positions are, but if someone actually knows for certain, it would be very helpful to hear that perspective.

      2. David- I’m not sure where you got your figure of 96 new positions. Mr Scherer’s article presents some percentages and the total $$ those percentages represent. If Ray’s information is correct, the spread on these $$ should be in their info somewhere. I just haven’t had time to read the whole packet.

      3. John – There is an attachment to Mr. Scherer’s article. It shows an increase in personnel from 399 in FY2000 to 495 in FY2011, which is an increase of 96 employees (or 26%).

        I read through the levy guide, but it doesn’t explain the increase in personnel. I think it would be helpful for the district to be up front as to why there was a need for increased personnel.

      4. Demands on the school district have changed significantly in two areas in the past decade, and they may explain the need for many of those additional FTEs. First, is ESL…I don’t know if the local schools were providing any of those types of services a decade ago, but I doubt it. Second, the legal requirements to provide services to special needs children, such as those with autism, have increase significantly.

        Anyway, those are just two areas that occurred to me off the top of my head. There may be more. And those additional front-line staff may have increased the number of staff required to support them. Perhaps the district was up-front disclosing all this, as the changes occurred, but at times like this I agree that it makes sense for the district to re-cap the changes as a summary so that they make clear sense to everyone.

      5. David- Thanks. I missed that link. If we amortize it, that is only about 9 new people per year, which doesn’t seem like much. It is the cumulative effect that is catching us here.

        Phil- I think you are correct in your assesment. If I remember right, ESL was just getting started in the late ’90’s. My oldest daughter returned from Costa Rica about ’01, and she looked at ESL as a teaching option. She ended up with a straight Spanish position at Raldolph and then at Minnehaha Academy. She felt that was the better direction, and it proved to be so. Also, we have a grandson who has sensory processing disorder, similar to autism. The first step with these kids is to try to mainline them. Last year, he had a full time para to assist him with the school setting, and he was not the only one in the class. If you look at the increase in statistics with children with these types of special needs, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect a pretty sharp increase in personel costs. It has been researched at depth over the last 20+ years, and it seems we have made a commitment to this type of education rather than sequester special needs kids in special schools. This has necessitated the need for 5 or 6 staff people per classroom, in some cases. For me, the jury is still out as to whether this is the best way to teach them. It for sure is not the lease expensive. It has been an interesting process for our family, and we are not out of the woods yet.

      6. John – This is similar to my thinking on the increase in staff. I haven’t been in Northfield that long, so this is really just my best guess. Many school districts have seen increases in Special Education instructors and Educational Assistants over the past decade. I think it would be beneficial for the district to explain this to voters. The district is obligated to provide these services and there has never been sufficient state or federal funding to meet the mandated services at the local level.

        Is the the Companeros program still relatively new? If so, that would also explain some of the personnel growth over the past decade.

    2. There may be logical explanations to all of this. Inflation for that period was 31%, while there was an increase of 96 FTEs. If you calculate average cost per FTE in 2000, adjust for inflation, then adjust for the increase in FTEs, you end up with $30.07 million. That is $2.67 million less than the stated 2011 costs. Then the questions should be asked: Were the new FTEs for some reason more expensive than previous FTEs? Can the increase in health care costs (faster than inflation) account for the difference? Is there some other factor involved?

      It seems to me that, all other factors remaining constant, inflation and an increase in FTEs would have resulted in an increase in personnel costs of about $11.6 million all by themselves. Everyone should feel free to check my math…I’m not immune to error.

    3. Mr. Scherer is a member of the City Council’s AD Hoc Finance Study Committee and as an accountant I think obviously has the skill to present the facts.

      In these situations, it is WHICH facts are presented that are always a part of the relevancy to the entire picture.

      You’ll notice that Mr. Scherer does NOT say ‘vote against this referendum; he presents a set of facts for your consideration.

      I think the most important sentence in his opinion piece is: “Taxpayers cannot afford these costs anymore because, for one, they cannot afford these benefits for themselves and their families” (ending of third to last paragraph)

      This comes as a rather conclusive statement, after laying out the increase in personnel/benefit costs in the school district which are not accompanied by private sector increases. Some of the 76% increased personnel costs in the last 11 years which he notes, may be the result of decreased funding support from the state, but that is not clear.

      A difficult decision when there is simply no more money to spread around; given the complexity of school funding, I expect most will vote on a ‘gut level’.

    4. I think that Bron Scherer jumped to big conclusions based on very little data. The increase in personnel costs and the number of FTE increases are not disputed–but his conclusion is that “rich insurance and guaranteed retirement plan benefits as well as other post-employment benefits now appear to be only available for few in the public sector.” (Yeah, tell that to poor old Steve Hemsley and his posse.)

      It is natural that in these trying financial times we want to come up with all kinds of reasons why we should not have to pay so much for schools–after all, we have less money–how can we pay more? So Bron Scherer, instead of actually analyzing the financial data, concludes that we should not have to pay more if it seems like too much.

      This is, once again, blame the teachers and the union mentality–although he goes on to say he supports our schools and great educators–he puts the blame on something he is not claiming any statistical evidence for–that somehow the school employees are being enriched at the expense of the taxpayers–and even the students.

      I do know that normal, reasonable health insurance costs have sky-rocketed astronomically. Most private-sector employees have seen their share of costs and their deductibles go up–so they have heard a bit about the increase costs—but they believe they are entitled to this benefit without including it in taxable income—meaning that taxpayers are subsidizing the cost of health insurance in the private sector–but we somehow think that public school teachers should get less or no coverage because they have choosen to be teachers? Any way, a big part of personnel costs are health care costs and this is not the fault of the teachers or the unions-nor are they “enriched” by these financial costs.

      The other cost Bron cited was the retirement costs–without identifying any data that would lead to a conclusion that retired teachers are reaping unusually high benefits or even kinda-high benefits.

      However, there is no mention in Bron’s article about how much vacation the administrative staff is allowed to accumulate or how much their retirement pay would be.

      There is no discussion on how many special-needs students are being main-streamed because their parents demand that their child–who may only function at the level of a two-year old and needs a dedicated aide to be in the classroom–has been sucking up an FTE for the last 8 years.

      I am afraid Bron Scherer’s column is full of opinion but lacking any real financial analysis of the problem. (My health insurance premium increased more than 100% in the same 11 year period coverd by the school data–I don’t get anything from the health insurance company accept bigger deductibles–I am not enriched by the increase–I have been impovershed!)

      I think a real analyais might be the administrator costs increase over time. In my opinion, we have an overpaid Superintendent and several principals, as well as a few overpaid administrative staff–but thst is not our biggest problem.

      Our biggest problem is that we have a s state government that has failed in their constitutional requirement to fund the public schools, and now we have to step up to the plate and take care of it again.

      What we really need is Wendy Anderson back at the helm.

      Please do not “cherry pick” the statistics–you need to know the whole picture to understand what a 77% increase in “Total personnel costs” means. It may be that costs were excluded from that category in FY 2000 are now included in FY2011. I am pretty sure you will see a big increase in special ed–not because these teachers are especially compensated but because there is an increase in needs in this area–completely out of control of the school. In addition, more families are going without insurance and the school nurse may be the only health-care professional they see–and even if “we can’t afford it” we need to help these students, too.

      Bron makes a statement that “Families and businesses could never and do not operate this way.” Although his meaning is somewhat obscure as he refers in the preceeding paragraph to complex funding formulas, he is almost right on the mark–but not in the way he instends.

      The public schools are required to provide a “free and appropriate education” for ALL students. Businesses and families get to choose–our charge to the public schools is to provide this education to EVERYONE as that is what WE THE PEOPLE decided. Businesses would outsource the work to India or abandon a product that cost so much to produce—families choose less expensive housing or move somewhere for a better job.

      Please do an actual analysis of costs before you draw any conclusions. And Bron could have done a much better job of either making his case or actually analyzing the information. (Yes, I know you could.)

      P. S. I am also a CPA and business owner.

      1. Jane- A very good and detailed analysis in your opinions. The only thing of issue to me is this statement

        Our biggest problem is that we have a s state government that has failed in their constitutional requirement to fund the public schools, and now we have to step up to the plate and take care of it again.

        We are the source of funds for education, whether the taxes are collected on the local level or the state level. The idea of cutting taxes on the state level just shifts the burden to the local level. IMO, to save taxes by cutting funds for education and elderly care is just illogical. Unless we can find a whole bunch of skilled and certified teachers and nursing staff who will work for no pay, it is going to cost money. To blame the “State” for shirking their duty to fund education is just trying to pass off the responsibility onto someone else. It is our community and our responsibility.

      2. Jane,

        Your perspective on all of this is very helpful. I really wish the school district had you, and Bron, and a couple of others who have budget-analysis skills go through relevant figures ahead of time and issue an independent report. Sigh. I believe that SOME of what the district tells us is true, I just don’t know when they’re shading things and when they aren’t.

        I wanted to comment on administrator salaries in the district. Many are drawing six-figure salaries. But, having worked closely with a number of principals over the years, for many of them, it’s totally deserved. Running a building where you’re attending to staff issues, connecting with parents, dealing with student issues etc etc. is a really tough job, and when it’s done well, it absolutely deserves the payment this district is providing. (Same argument for teacher salaries–for the vast majority that are doing all facets of their job–prepping lessons, evaluating student work, coaching struggling students, feeding back to parents and students, answering parent phone calls or emails in a timely way, actually putting PLC time to serious use) the salarieis and the raises are well-earned.

        We have some excellent administrators who (in my mind) fully earn their salaries and benefits. The problem is, we have others who seem to be only doing one or two aspects of the job–the ones they like, apparently–and they get the same pay. In these cases, they are WAY overpaid.

        This applies to many, but primariily to Dr. Richardson. Apparently, he’s a budget whiz. And it’s clear he likes talking about funding and legislation. What I see very little evidence of is his involvement in any meaningful role with respect to curriculum, or staff accountability (including the other administrators who are slackers and who are allowing teachers in their buildings to be slackers). And, Dr. R. won’t generally respond to parent emails and makes no apparent effort to reach out to parents.

        That makes him grossly overpaid, even at half the salary.

        We need to get someone in here who wants to and can to ALL of the job.

  13. John G: Yes, I agree. WE are the state, and when our elected reps don’t do their job we still have to pay to get it done. It is always OUR community and OUR responsibility.

    The “Minnesota Miracle” realized that by providing all students in Minnesota an opportunity for a good education, the entire state benefits–our employers have a good source for a trained workforce and their children can go to good schools—but when we revert to funding by referandum, we get an unequal result throughout the state–less affluent or less organized school districts do not have access to the funds necessary for that good education.

    Yes, it is our responsibility and yes it costs money to provide long-term care for old people and food for poor people and school for all people–but we have to figure out how to do it anyway.

    Saying we just can’t afford it is not good enough.

    I do think we need to be a bit tougher in our hiring policies for administrators. Compensation based on comparing public-sector jobs to private-sector is bad policy. We are overcompensating a large number of people such as administrators–if they want the high salaries they need to work in the private sector. It is called “public service” after all.

    I do not listen to any complaints from teachers for being under-paid–although it is often true–it is the career they chose and they knew it when they picked it–I do think that administrator pay should be on a very similar scale.

    I do think the public schools could cut some waste out of their budgets–I just don’t think it will add up to much and I don’t think it will make the differences that we need.

    We are going to have to pay for education.

  14. I’m traveling on business and so have neither time nor other resources to investigate Mr. Scherer’s analysis in detail. Just a few quickies:

    1. The calculations in Mr. Scherer’s little table (clickable at the bottom of the Nfld News article) look right to me. I have no idea whether the numbers those calculations are based on (FTE counts, for example) were correctly transcribed from the “sources” (vaguely) alluded to in that document, but see no reason to suspect bad faith.

    2. Most important to me in evaluating the significance of these numbers is the context: (i) Are we really comparing apples to apples here — e.g., was FTE measured the same way in 2001 as in 2011? (ii) To what extent could increasing school FTE be attributed to new mandates, new demands for special ed, changing patterns of state and federal support, etc.? I see no effort to provide such context in Mr Scherer’s piece.

    3. Mr Scherer bemoans increasing costs of what he calls “rich” health insurance and retirement benefits — but again offers no context for the “rich” descriptor. Compared to what? Are school district employees really actuarialy over-compensated? If so, compared to what?

    4. If indeed FTE soared in an apples-to-apples sense since 2001, why have class sizes increased very markedly in recent years? Perhaps there’s an answer, but Mr Scherer doesn’t suggest one.

    5. Mr Scherer compares schools to businesses. (He’s not alone … .) IMO there is less (much, much less) to this analogy than its present popularity might suggest. Yes, both entities involve receive and spend money, and should observe due economies. But these entities exist for different reasons, have different “metrics” of success, operate under different constraints, produce fundamentally different “products”, etc.

    1. Re point 4: Class sizes at the elementary level have, in fact, gone down. I just looked at the district provided enrollment report for Oct –no elementary classroom is greater than 28. When my son was in elementary, there were 8-10 classrooms with 30 in them.

      There are classes of 40 or so at the middle and high school. But, there are also others at both schools with enrollments of 12-15.

      1. Kathie – My daughter’s class (Sibley – 5th grade – Foley) has 30 students, so that is one that is larger than 28. Class sizes may have come down, but certainly not enough to explain more than 90 new positions.

      2. David–All I can tell you is that the 10/3/11 enrollment report shows that class at 28.
        The reports dated 9/23, 9/16, 9/9, and 9/3 also all show 28.

        Something is hinky somewhere.

  15. Yesterday’s strib…”In odd years like this, school referendums have been approved 71 percent of the time the past 20 years, while they pass only 52 percent of the time in even-year, higher-profile, higher-turnout elections…”.

    Clearly the levy increase election was scheduled this year for that reason, and only that reason, since the increase is neither needed, nor budgeted to be spent, in school year 2012-2013. This is according to the school board’s own text and figures published in their “Levy Referendum Guide”. The increase is not needed until two years from now in school year 2013-2014, and even then they only plan to spend about 30% of the new tax money they will have collected to that point.

    The existing levy does not expire until 2014. The system does not need any of the new levy money until 2014. Why not vote this one down and put it up again in 2013? It’s the off year election that the system seems to think it needs for passage, and it will keep 3 million dollars where it is needed: Circulating in the Northfield economy, rather than parked doing nothing in a school system bank account.

    1. I Agree with Wm. on this point.. when money is so tight, why should this be voted on early?
      If the economy loosens up a bit, the referendum might pass next year after possibly failing this year, and since the next year option exists, why ask for for the money early?

      There may be reasons, other than what Wm. surmises, for holding the vote this year, so let’s hear from the School District on this issue…

    2. William,

      The idea that the district keeps an eye on when levies are likely to pass is not, to me, shocking in any way; I’d expect no less. On the other hand, the idea that the school district is asking for money it doesn’t need now is, IMO, gratuitously cynical. Is our (volunteer, unpaid …) school board really into financial chicanery? I think not.

      Nor (as we discussed earlier on a different thread) is it fair to describe money in the bank as “parked doing nothing.” The whole idea of banking is that money in banks is available to be borrowed — if indeed the school board has no immediate use for it, which seems to me less than clear. True, interest rates these days are not impressive, but it seems quite reasonable to me that the school district maintain some positive balance against, among other things, the real possibility that state legislators will continue or amplify their recent folly. If not, fine; in that event less levy money will be required in the future.

      Meanwhile, one reason to pass the levy now is to avoid the need (which will exist if this levy fails) to plan — painfully — for significant cuts in 2013-14.

      I, too, would be glad to hear from school board members, but I’m guessing they’ve decided, perhaps not unreasonably, not to participate in blogs — even good, reasonable, sensible ones like LoGroNo.

      1. Paul…I understand why the school board would schedule an election when it has the best chance of success. you say you would…”Expect no less”. Well, I guess that is one way of looking at our representative democracy. But anyway, I’m not harping on the timing because low turnout makes success more likely, I’m harping because they don’t need the money. And that’s not accusing them of ‘chicanery’. I expect the school board to protect the schools first and consider taxpayers after that. But in this case it seems they are not considering the taxpayers. In fact, they seem to be punishing them by taking money in 2012 and 2013 that their own facts and figures demonstrate they do not need and do not expect to spend.

        Look, even the superintendent says he has a ‘cushion’ of a year. If you want to give him an even bigger cushion because something might happen someplace, sometime, somewhere, that’s up to you. But be aware that this bigger cushion will take real money from real people who damn sure need it. It’s their money and the need it next year for a million different reasons. The school board has not given us one reason why they need it next year.

        Many Northfielders vote for school board requests because they believe the schools to be good stewards of taxpayer’s money. I think the timing of this election puts that trust in jeopardy. They could have scheduled next year, or even the year after. Maybe, if it is allowed, they could even have asked for a levy increase now that wouldn’t go into effect until they really need it during the second half of 2013.

        Voting yes is voting to allow taxation for no purpose except to increase the size of a ‘cushion’. That’s it, pure and simple. You have really got to love taxes to make that vote.

      2. William,

        When I said I’d “expect no less” from the school board I meant nothing negative or cynical. Any astute school board should, IMO, keep timing issues in mind, including those related to issues competing for voters’ attention. And I’m glad you don’t impute chicanery (my word, perhaps not the best) to the board — but can’t help noticing that you now accuse them of “punishing” taxpayers. Really?

        It’s certainly fair to ask whether new money is legitimately needed now. I’m satisfied that it is, for reasons already outlined, including (i) reducing the need to plan for upcoming deep cuts (planning has to predate the cuts), and (ii) guarding prudently against the very real possibility (as opposed to “sometime, somewhere”) that our state solons will behave just as disgracefully in the future as they’ve done — twice — in the recent past. This may be “cushioning” of a sort, but it’s hardly cushy.

        Levy supporters don’t have to “love taxes”. It’s enough to want stuff taxes help pay for. These include good schools, reasonably insulated against political vagaries. Yes, good schools cost real money, that comes from “real people” who have other things to spend it on. But good schools seem to me to be about the best investment that can be made in “real people’s” future happiness and prosperity.

      3. Paul… So the reasons you encourage a YES vote are, (i) The school system should not have to plan for the consequences of a NO vote, and (ii) The legislature might do something that would have a negative impact of the systems’ budget.

        I think they have already planned for the impact of a NO vote. They outline it in their “Levy Referendum Guide”: No impact at all in school year 2012-2013. In fact, they spend a million dollars more in 2012-2013 whether it passes or not. A voter can vote Yes or NO and be assured that their vote will be no impact whatsoever in 2012-13. The only impact is on taxpayers who will have a million and a half dollars less to spend. Regarding the next year: “Superintendent Chris Richardson said fundamental changes in how the district educates students could change if the operating levy increase is voted down, particularly after the 2013-14 school year.” That’s AFTER 2013-14 and AFTER 3 million additional dollars has been taken from taxpayers. Clearly they could have scheduled the vote for the fall of 2013 and begun collecting in 2014 when they actually need it with little or no consequence on education. If this isn’t punishing taxpayers what is it?

        Regarding the necessity of a yes vote because of what the legislature might do: The federal government might cut funds to the state for education related programs. Should the legislature raise our state taxes because of that possibility? The feds might cut funds for state roads. Should we raise state taxes because of that possibility? Raising taxes because of what might happen is just not good public policy.

        I’m not against the increase when it is needed. I would vote yes in 2013. If they want to take a chance on putting it on the ballot in 2012 I’ll vote for it then, provided it goes into effect in 2014. This year it needs to be voted down.

      4. William,

        At some risk of hair-splitting I’d point out that i. and ii. (I prefer my originals to your paraphrases … ) were among my reasons for encouraging a YES vote. I’ve outlined other reasons above.

        True, the board has already “planned” for a possible NO vote in the sense of having outlined in broad dollar terms what might happen in the future. But this sort of “planning” is a far cry from the necessary but painful, laborious, divisive work of deciding, with appropriate input from many constituencies, who goes, who stays, how much class sizes rise, what classes or programs get trimmed, whose oxen get gored and whose fed, and so on. If I understand correctly, such a “planning” process would for practical and perhaps legal reasons have to happen quite soon if this levy fails — and even if, in the end, a similar levy passes later on.

        Granted, the purpose of a levy is not just to minimize a school board’s work, or to put off hard decisions. But why make things harder than necessary? Thinking ahead in these cases seems to me a good thing, not a “punishing” or profligate one.

        In better times I’d agree that we should be wary of “raising taxes because of what might happen” — keeping in mind that in some sense we do this all the time when planning for the unknowable future. But these are not good times on the state legislative front, and the scenario of state funding shenanigans is by no means far-fetched. It’s happened twice in recent years.

  16. Paul, as would be expected, you ask a lot of good questions. I think I can shed some light on the answers for you.
    I believe the staff numbers are straight from the district, and they count FTE’s the way they always do. Schools are rather rigid in how they count staff. They hire in .1 to full FTE. They are usually very good at keeping track of their FTE’s as the state requires reports based on FTE’s.
    As far as ‘rich health care’ costs, I’m pretty sure Mr. Scherer is basing his statement on what he sees in his business as a CPA. CPA’s typically know the ins and outs of their clients expenses. I know the pending teacher contract requires the district to pay approximately $1,250 per month for a family health plan, and about $475 for a single health plan. Mr. Scherer calls those ‘rich plans’ because he most likely sees most private sector businesses first of all have family health plans that cost much less than that, and where the employer contribution is much less than that. In my construction business my single health plan for my workers has a total cost of about $375….because it is not a ‘rich plan’ and does not pay dollar one, etc.
    Finally, I’m pretty sure the reason FTE’s have increased so much while class sizes have also increased is because many of the positions are in either special education or ESL postions. Northfield is known far and wide as a district that provides top notch special ed and ESL services. If we are an attractor of these students our FTE’s, and therefore overall costs, will increase.

  17. William,you make a lot of sense regarding timing. I would prefer not to see the school district ‘horse’around with elections…such as trying for off-elections, changing polling places, etc. I think a much stronger plan would be to do as was done in most other levies—form a strong Vote Yes committee and let them do their work. Our last levy was passed in 2002 when Gov, Congress, State Sen, State Reps were all up for election. The Vote Yes committee did a good job and it was passed by something like 72% if I recall.

  18. I work in government and the saying “doing more with less” is complete nonsense. One of the reasons I moved to Northifled was that its citizens invested in the schools and I’d much prefer to see the district do “more with more” and I will happily pay higher taxes to see this become a reality. As an idustrialized country we underinvest in education and we’ll reap the fruits of this underinvestment all too soon if don’t recognize that there’s no better ROI than investing in education (especially in math and science).

  19. Jane, I tend to agree with your statements about administrative compensation. And also with teachers that complain about the pay after they have been there for some years….what changed? But teachers can be their own worst enemies on this point. They and their union essentially dictate where the dollars go in any settlement. For years the veteran teachers decide to push as much to the lower right corner of the pay schedule. Right now I believe that schedule pays about $68,000 per year to those teachers. The reason they do this is because their retirement benefit is set according to their last 5 years of service. So, the more you can pack into the final years, the more your retirement benefit is. This of course is all done at the expense of the starting teachers.

    I objected to this plan many times in my years on the school board. It simply did not make sense to me to pay a 4th year teacher far, far less than a 25 year teacher. They have the same class duties, class management, etc.etc. However, it is pretty much impossible to break this salary schedule open. If we could eliminate the defined benefit pension plan, that is tied to the final 5 years, then I’m sure we could change the schedule. I suspect it won’t be long until the defined benefit plans are ended in schools. Such plans are runniing headlong into major problems due to demographic changes.

    1. Ray,

      Even though defined benefit plans are leaving the private sector because they are unsustainable, I don’t see any reasonable prospect that they will be leaving the public sector. Do you?

    2. Ray, Jane, David, et al.,

      Interesting discussion on the structure, timing, and relative generosity of teacher and administrator pay and benefits. Improvements are usually possible to any system; sounds like this one is no exception.

      I have nothing “expert” to add, but after shacking up for decades with a school district employee (not a teacher, not in Nfld) it seems to me, FWIW, that these folks are not over-compensated in the over-a-long-career sense. The school employee I know best, a veteran, works for less than typical *starting* salaries in her profession for less-credentialed graduates.

      The point is not to complain — the choice was made freely and knowledgeably — but to counter the impression, if it exists, that school district service is, broadly speaking, an open trough. If retirement benefits prove to be above average (we’ll see) that’s significant, but it’s the long run that counts.

      In any event, as Jane says, the immediate question concerns the levy that’s actually on the table, and the level of investment we want to make in education. Sure, the system we support isn’t perfect, and won’t become so whatever the levy outcome.

    3. Paul,

      I don’t know what you mean when you say that the levy is an “investment” in education. How does one measure “investment”?

      A better approach is to call it what it is – an additional tax burden. For those of us who own commercial property, this additional tax burden is not insignificant.

      Even if I agree to pay my disproportionate share of this tax, I also have to ask if I trust that the school district will save the additional levy money in the event that there is an uncompensated loss of state funding.

  20. I have no qualms about paying someone with 25 years of experience more than I pay for 4 years–I agree that it should not be an excessive difference–but 68000 per year after 25 or 30 years is not too much–I guess I would even think about giving someone a big jump in year 25.

    What you are suggesting, though, Ray, is that we just can’t afford to pay teachers enough to fund a decent retirement benefit. These are not excessive benefit plans for retirement–they are decent and resonable and reward years of public service at lower than otherwise compensation–we would be wise to max out teacher salaries at a lower amount and still pay a resonable amount for defined pension–base it on the years they taught rather than the last 5 years of compensation. (Like 1000 of annual benefit for each year taught–you teach for 30 years you get a 30000 annual retirement benefit—and teachers could then supplement with 401k savings or whatever. However, that is not my choice here. We need to decide whether we are going to fund our public schools or not–and I think we should pay for it. Then, we need to get candidates on the school board who will start negotiating decent administrative compensation now–not the excessive amounts we are using–and start negotiating with the teachers union now, not waiting –with the idea that the changes are either going to be the ones we can come up with or the terrible ones that will be legislated.

  21. Paul, Ray and everyone–my concern about administrative salaries in the public schools is specifically, IMO over-compensated Adminstrators such as our supt., the school principals, and SOME staff–especially staff that do not have at least a bachelor’s degree.

  22. Ray,

    You’re quoted in today’s Northfield News to the effect that you’re “not sure” that this “the best time” to have “asked this [levy] question”.

    Fair enough, but that’s a lot of qualifiers. Do you mean that the levy should fail? If so, should a similar levy pass next time?

  23. Two things Paul. Had I been on the board I would have voted for one of these plans: 1)to simply extend our levy for 10 years, providing that certainty for funding. If you got into year 6 or 7 and found out it simply was too thin, you could always revoke it and propose a new levy. But in these difficult economic times I don’t think a 25% increase in the per pupil levy amount is a wise plan. Or, 2), I may very well have been convinced to increase the levy, but do it at the 2012 election, and get an active Vote Yes committee working for a year to educate the public. The case for an increase may be made more solid if the legislature comes back in 2012 and faces a budget deficit, forcing a supplemental budget passage that kicks things into worse shape than they are right now.
    As Rep. Garofolo pointed out, our schools did in fact receive some decent increases this budget cycle….I seem to remember about $323 per pupil for Northfield. I understand that figure is an “all in” number across all budgets. But the bottom line is the bottom line. The school will get that increased amount and they will spend it educating our children.

    1. Ray,

      Thanks for clarifying your view.

      I’m not quite sure what you mean by an “all in” number, but according to Minnpost,, Rep. Garofalo’s numbers are essentially bogus.

      The article’s a bit technical, but here’s a sample:

      … the only real new money in [the basic tuition] pot this year and next is the $50 per year per student Gov. Mark Dayton demanded to offset the costs of district borrowing that will be triggered by the shift.

      Rep. Garofalo has every right to advocate for his view. But why not use standard financial reporting methods?

    2. Paul,

      I don’t understand the numbers in the Post. It criticizes the “base to base” calculations. But, the “all in” number seems to give the taxpayer (and the schools) the most reliable number of how much is being taxed and spent. Whether the “new” money is inflation-adjusted dollars, federal tax incentives, Q Comp, etc. is irrelevant to whether the school is receiving more money.

      As I understand the revenue concern of the schools, the larger problem is the State’s delay in providing the school funding. Northfield is being promised $400.00 more, but it is not receiving monies promised to it.

      And, if I understand Dr. Richardson correctly (from the Chamber forums), schools are facing an expenditure problem because of state mandates.

  24. Paul, I was actually wrong in my “all in” figure in #26 above. According to the Mn Dept of Ed, comparing fiscal year 2011 through fiscal year 2013 Northfield will receive an increase of $211 for the general education formula, $120 for special education, and $65 for other formulas….that totals a $397 per pupil increase for these two years. The $397 is what people typically call the “all in” figure as it combines all categories of financial aids. I don’t think any one is going to dispute these figures. The $50 that was added during the extended legislative session to help offset borrowing costs due to the delay in funding is included in the $65 other formula aid as far as I know.

    The “all in” figure is the figure I believe people should focus on. In other businesses and ventures it is referred to as “the bottom line”. We can talk about whether special education receives enough dollars (I don’t believe it does), what transportation costs are, etc. etc. but it really boils down to the bottom line— that is what the tax payers must pay and that schools have revenue to spend. In ths same manner, it doesn’t to anyone any good to have people talking about a “1% contract settlement” when that very contract may have a “bottom line” cost to a school district of 6% to 7%.

    School funding has become far, far too complicated. We have huge numbers of categorical aids at both the state and federal level. This just causes mass confusion as far as I’m concerned. That is why I really think it is important to focus on the ‘all in’ figure. We can talk about how $23 ppu flows to the schools for some specific issue, but it is still just $23 of money to spend.

    David L points out an important concern about the delay in funding. I don’t see that as a huge issue and it has happened many budget cycles in the past. (I think in my nearly 16 years on the board we were carring “promised” balances for at least 6 of those years….but it all was eventually paid in full.) It will probably cost Northfield about $30,000 to $40,000 to handle borrowing due to the delay in state payments. But as I’ve noted before, a delay is not a default; the funds will come over the next few years. If legislators start talking about a ‘default’ on the promised funds, that is a much bigger issue.

    I hope something good comes out of all this talk about school financing. In my heart I believe that Minnesota made a mistake in taking over 100% of school funding without every deciding the appropriate level of funding. I think it is a much better plan to have 80% of school funding come from the state and have the local property owners pick up the remaining 20% in a non-debatable assessment. That is what was done for many years in Minnesota. Operating levies would be on top of that if they receive voter approval. I say this because I firmly believe in local control of schools and to have local control you really need some level of non-discretionary funding support. That support should show up on every single real estate tax bill as a ‘local school tax’ line item, just like it does for EDA’s, cities, counties, etc. But, this plan still requires the state to determine what a fair level of funding is for schools, and that has never really been done.

  25. Ray,

    Could you give a URL or some more specific pointer to the $397 figure you mention for new all-in money? That same number was used by Rep Garofalo in his anti-levy screed, and it was also dissed in MinnPost. I don’t say the number is wrong, but I’d like to see it in context of similarly calculated numbers for other years, and of any additional mandates or other new expenses districts have to face.

    I don’t know whether 80/20, 90/10, or 100/0 is the right balance of state vs local funding for basic education. Local control and buy-in are fine, but how would very property-poor districts fare?

    School funding formulae may be complicated, but is it really clear that simpler is necessarily better? Aren’t there undeniable real-world complications (e.g., varying demographics, varying geography, etc.) that state funding formulas *should* take account of?

    IMO Minnesota has a long and creditable history of working to even out disparities across urban/rural, rich/poor, and other divides. And we’ve done quite well economically with such policies. Devolving financial responsibility from the state to localities often, IMO, works against the good value.

  26. Paul, I’ll try to find a URL for the comprehensive number. I’ve got the paper printouts. Because of the massive number of categorical aids for each district, it is hard to find the ‘all in’ number. I think the House and Senate each work with the Dept of Ed to identify the ‘all in’ figures for each school district.

  27. However the levy vote turns out tomorrow, I think this thread has been extremely useful—many different and thoughtful points of view explicated, and in a mostly civil and non-finger-pointing way.
    Thanks, Griff, for sponsoring a place where such discussions can occur.

    I came across a website relevant to some of the discussions on this thread and the other one that I thought I would try to share. It’s from a grassroots group in Mpls called “put kids first”

    Here’s the url http://www.putkidsfirstminneapolis.org/

    And here’s a brief statement of their mission:

    We’re a progressive, independent, grassroots group of parents, students and ordinary citizens working to change the way teachers are hired, assigned and evaluated in Minneapolis Public Schools.
    Why? Because research shows the classroom teacher is the single greatest school-based factor in a kid’s academic success. But under our current contract rules, almost all staff decisions are made according to a rigid, industrial-era seniority system that pays no attention to teacher quality, student needs, diversity or the public good.

    For us, it comes down to a fundamental question of values:

    Do our public schools exist first and foremost to provide kids with the best possible education with public dollars? Or to first provide jobs to adults, regardless of their performance or what students need?
    In its strategic plan, the district says “Children First” is its top value. But in its actual daily behavior, as dictated by the contract, adult employment needs come first. Every. Time.

    We support Minneapolis teachers and their right to collective bargaining. But we need reforms that put kids first.

    Apparently this group has drawn the ire of the Mpls teacher’s union. I think it goes to show that whatever actions “put kids first” are open to debate–a lot of it.

    Just like we’ve been having here.

    1. You’re welcome, Kathie.

      I’ve been having a tough time deciding how to vote. There’s lots to like about what our school district has been doing. One personal example: As a long-time supporter of the Charter School movement, I especially appreciate the board and administration’s efforts to sponsor our local charter schools, Prairie Creek and ArTech. It was a lot of extra work for Supt. Chris Richardson and staff last year when the law changed re: sponsorship.

      Another personal example: their terrific mentoring programs/staff.

      But I’m torn because of the additional economic strain this would have on so many struggling taxpayers right now (not me and Robbie, however), especially local commercial property owners (I’m not one).

      So I’ve decided to vote no in hopes that the economy starts to rebound and that the School Board resubmits the levy referendum next year.

  28. A question for those who would vote yes because it is a part of their core values to support school system levies: Do your core values include taking needed money from those who will use it, in order to give it to those who do not need it and will not use it? The additional taxes collected next year are not budgeted to begin to be spent until the fall of 2013. And even in school year 2013-14, the system only expects to spend $900,000 of the additional $4.3 million it will have collected through 2014. That’s 3.4 million out of the Northfield economy for no good reason.

    This levy referendum is at least a year too early. Vote No and the school system will resubmit it next year. If it is fair and justified I assume the voters will accept it then. In the mean time people will have the use of their own money and Northfield’s economy will be stronger for it.

  29. I’ll vote yes.

    I disagree with William’s summary of the matter (we’ve been over and over this; let’s not rehash), but I agree that core values are involved.

    Indeed, several core values arise — support for education, leaving money in people’s hands, what we can afford, whether the particular tax structure is fair, and more. The live question, as in any election, is how to “weight” competing values and somehow distill everything down to a “yes” or a “no”. It’s hard, but there’s no alternative.

    I’ve repeated ad nauseam , so won’t repeat, why I think the levy request is reasonable, and why now is a good time to ask. That I’ll vote “yes” is not to deny that paying taxes is easy in hard times, or that the present tax structure may overburden some sectors (e.g., downtown property) compared to others. Very likely some of these things should be changed, but IMO a school levy is not the appropriate vehicle.

    Nothing good is free, but some expensive things are worth having.

  30. Nfld News at 10:30: School levy referendum passing after first polling place reports

    With one polling place (Bethel Lutheran Church) reporting, which includes all of the Dakota County precincts, both questions on the school levy referendum ballot have passed.

    The first question, which asks voters to revoke the current $1,270 per pupil operating levy and replace it with a $1,604 per pupil operating levy for the next 10 years. The vote was 453-290.

    The second question, which asks voters to continue the $750,000 per year capital projects levy for the the next 10 years passed 481-258.

  31. Nfld News has results from the Northfield Community Resource Center polling place:

    Question 1 … 672 yes (48 percent) – 725 no
    Question 2 … 724 yes (52 percent) – 667 no

    So that tightens up the overall results on the operating levy to:

    1,819 yes votes (54 percent)
    1,520 no votes

  32. Both questions passed.

    Nfld News: Northfield school levy referendum overwhelmingly passes

    By an overwhelming margin, the operating levy passed by 1,154 votes, while the capital projects levy passed by 1,494 votes.

    Nfld Patch: Northfield School District Levies Pass With Ease

    KYMN: Levy referendum passes

    Northfield Public Schools voters approved two levy questions at the polls yesterday. The first question, which revoked the existing operating levy of $1,270 and replaced it with a new operating levy of $1,604 for a 10 year duration, passed 3,497 (59%) to 2,343 (41%). The second question, which asked voters to extend the current capital projects levy of $750,000 per year for 10 years, passed 3,660 (63%) to 2,166 (37%).

    And the MN SOS site still does not have the results posted. ARGH

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