Instructional technology in Northfield’s K-12 classrooms: Do we know its benefits enough to support the ten-year capital projects levy?

The New York Times is running a series of articles on the use of technology in K-12 education called Grading the Digital School. Thus far:

small classroomIt’s an issue that’s relevant to Northfield because the Northfield School Board is holding a special election on November 8 to renew both the operating levy and the capital projects levy for ten years.

Instructional technology (software, hardware, networking infrastructure, etc.) is paid for primarily with funds from the capital projects levy.

A year ago at the Oct. 11, 2010 School Board meeting, there was a Technology Plan update:

Director of Human Resources and Technology Matt Hillmann presented a status report on the 2007-2011 District technology plan, shared some examples of success/challenges/opportunities with District technology, and previewed the process for developing the 2011-15 District  technology plan.

The link to the PDF of 2007-2011 District technology plan on the Technology Policies page is broken fixed. And But there’s no information there about a 2011-15 District technology plan, process or otherwise.

From what little I know thus far, I’m inclined to support the capital projects levy for maintenance of the District’s facilities.

But I’m not sure I like including instructional technology in that mix, especially without knowing the District’s instructional technology philosophy, how much is spent on it, what impact it’s had over the years, etc.   All the capital projects levy page says is:

This funding would allow the school district to replace the instructional materials and technology necessary to maintain and support quality learning in each building.

I’d like to know more than that.


  1. Griff Wigley said:

    The Edina school district is proposing a two-part levy similar to Northfield but their capital projects levy ONLY is for instructional technology, not maintenance of the District’s buildings and other facilities.

    Question #2 is an upgrade to an existing property tax levy to be used for Edina Public Schools technology spending. The current levy is for $1 million per year and this increased levy, when adopted, will be for $4.5 million per year and be in place for the next 10 years.

    They have a 2015 Technology Plan overview (PDF) that outlines the philosophy, goals, benefits and key initiatives.

    Their 14-slide presentation is really helpful. It also breaks down (slides 11-14) where the money would be spent.

    The Vote Yes Edina site has a page that shows Edina currently spends $122/student on technology, comparing that to 6 neighboring districts.

    October 10, 2011
  2. Griff Wigley said:

    I got this via email from Matt Hillmann, Director of Human Resources and Technology. (I’ve changed my wording in the blog post above):

    Thanks for the note — I saw your post on Locally Grown and immediately fixed the link yesterday. It appears it was actually a damaged PDF and I replaced it immediately.

    The State changed the time frame for our next technology plan and required us to submit a “bridge plan” last year, which essentially extended the current plan for one year.

    Last Spring, we completed a district-wide technology strengths/challenges/opportunities survey and held three focus group sessions at schools to gather feedback from staff. We also met with a small group of high school students to get their feedback on how District technology has served them. Ironically, our District technology steering committee is meeting today and I will be giving them an update on writing the new plan.

    Finally, we have some more detailed information on the projects completed so far with the current Capital Projects levy. I have a series of meetings this morning (including the District Technology Steering Committee) but will try to post that expanded information on our web site later today. I’ll give you a heads up when that happens.

    October 10, 2011
  3. Ray Cox said:

    Griff, I’m not going to try and decide if all the technology stuff the schools do is worth it. You know I tend to the Ludite side of things. I’ll go for making sure each child can read and comprehend well, write properly, and handle all sorts of math and science every time.
    But, I think we do need to make sure the schools have adequate capital dollars to take care of the buildings. We taxpayers paid for the buildings so it is in our best interest to see that they are maintained. If we don’t, we have situations like our Safety Center, which was constructed at the same time as Greenvale School but the city has let us down on maintenance. We can’t do that. Our buildings are designed for 75-100 year use, but to do that we have to allocate proper funds to take care of them.

    October 12, 2011
  4. Griff Wigley said:

    Ray, why would the School Board opt to combine the instructional technology with the building maintenance into one capital projects levy since they’re really very different costs? Yes, they’re both ‘capital’ but there must be a deeper rationale for selling this to the voters. I didn’t really think much about it till I saw that Edina’s was ONLY for instructional technology.

    October 12, 2011
  5. Kathie Galotti said:

    Griff, I think you are asking excellent questions. And I really like the Sept 4 article you posted a link to–it makes a point that I believe is right on the mark!

    I agree with Ray that school buildings need to be maintained. I am much less sure that we need to equip every single elementary (or secondary, for that matter) classroom with expensive SMART boards–that’s gee-whiz technology that only some teachers are going to make effective instructional use of. But, now that EVERY classroom has one, the replacement costs in the future are going to be that much bigger.

    The most important factor in whether a kid will show academic growth during a given year is the quality of the teacher standing in front of the class; not whether the classroom is outfitted with the latest and greatest gizmos.

    October 12, 2011
  6. Well, the evidence is not strongly in favor of the electronic classroom.

    To be sure, test scores can go up or down for many reasons. But to many education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning. NYTimes: Technology in Schools Faced Questions on value

    I would recommend looking at the following reports in more detail, then looking for more recent papers that reference them.

    Based on a comprehensive study of 94 classrooms from four states in different geographic regions of the country, this quantitative study investigated the impact of seven factors related to school technology (planning, leadership, curriculum alignment, professional development, technology use, teacher openness to change, and teacher non-school computer use) on five dependent measures in the areas of teacher skill (technology competency and technology integration), teacher morale, and perceived student learning (impact on student content acquisition and higher order thinking skills acquisition). Stepwise regression resulted in models to explain each of the five dependent measures. Teacher technology competency was predicted by teacher openness to change. Technology integration was predicted by teacher openness to change and the percentage of technology use with others. Teacher morale was predicted by professional development and constructivist use of technology. Technology impact on content acquisition was predicted by the strength of leadership, teacher openness to change, and negatively influenced by teacher non-school computer use. Technology impact on higher-order thinking skills was predicted by teacher openness to change, the constructivist use of technology, and negatively influenced by percentage of technology use where students work alone. Implications for the adoption and use of school technologies are discussed. [emphasis added]

    Baylor et al, 2002

    In addition, the type of technology should be evaluated in the context of the objectives

    Abstract: This study examines the effectiveness of a classroom response system (CRS) and architecture students’ perceptions of real-time feedback. CRS is designed to increase active engagement of students by their responses to a question or prompt via wireless keypads. Feedback is immediately portrayed on a classroom projector for discussion. The authors discuss the positive impact of CRS on student engagement and performance. Final exam scores and results from a survey and focus group input are examined. Findings indicate significant differences in final exam course grades between students using a CRS and those who did not. In summary, students reported clickers to be fun, they increased class participation and involvement, were effective to students’ learning experience and help keep them feeling mentally engaged, academically responsible and accountable.

    Bachman et al, 2011

    October 12, 2011
  7. Kathie Galotti said:

    These both sound interesting, and I look forward to reading them. I’m interested, though, in whether either measures effect size–that is, just because, say, “teacher openness to change” predicts a positive outcome, I would still want to know how strongly it predicts it.

    Let me clarify that I don’t opposed Smart Boards. They are nifty and fun and I’m sure they elicit student attention. I am simply saying that to put them in each and every classroom is wasteful. NOT every teacher is making use of them (my daughter’s 3rd grade friends last year had a big discussion about which teachers were and weren’t using them, and how some kids had to show teachers how to turn them on), and replacement costs for hundreds of these is significant.

    Hey, we’re on the precipice of a double recession. There are Northfield families who have been foreclosed upon, and others close to that edge. We should ask them to fork over more taxes when the school district wants to “maintain” its lavish technology policies?????

    October 12, 2011
  8. Todd Amunrud said:

    Thanks for the links Bruce. After reading through the NYTimes and Baylor link above a couple of thoughts. First, the NY times article does a nice job covering the “faithful push” of technology without adequate results. But doesn’t get to the root of concern. Does technology improve student outcomes. Second, the Baylor article is nearly ten years old. In terms of revelance, that seems a bit dated. Also it seemd to cover teacher perceptions, not student outcomes, which should be the ultimate measure of succussful teaching methods, including those were technology is involved. Anybody find any other revelant studies? Personally, I haven’t found anything substantial either way.

    From personal experience our daughter at Greenvale has had teachers using the smartboards without concerns from her, her classmates or the teachers. So while Kathy thinks they are questionable in there value based on student input, I shall do the same but for the positive.

    October 13, 2011
  9. Todd, thanks for the comment. Yes, the more scholarly article is older, but it shows the methodology I would want to see used. We have to remember the impact of what Kathie G said, which is that just because something is effective (p-value very significant that a change has occurred (e.g., better graduation rates) because of the intervention (e.g., smart boards), that does not mean it is cost-effective to use it. We suspect that a 1:1 teacher to student ratio would change graduation rates, but it would be too expensive. But the difference between a 1:30 and a 1:20 ratio may be significant but not cost effective over other cheaper interventions. But the push to go from 1:30 down to 1:20 has strong special interests while the push to improve the teachers themselves has similarly powerful opponents. And, from what I am reading, I think that better teachers is more important than more teachers, with both being possibly overshadowed by the uncorrectable (by the school system) quality of the students coming to the schools.

    October 13, 2011
  10. I think that “better teachers” is a singular noun (hence, “better teachers is”, but like some grammar questions, the ear is sometimes wrong.

    October 13, 2011
  11. Todd Amunrud said:

    Well put Bruce. The underlying theme for us all is better outcomes. There are guidance measures to this and the older article does address certain aspects of this nicely. I guess I am willing to vote yes and see how this all plays out for our kids.

    October 13, 2011
  12. Paul Zorn said:

    Kathy, Griff,

    I haven’t researched, and so have no opinion either way on, whether the school district indeed has “lavish” technology policies. If so, not good. Nor have I tried to research the district’s “instructional technology philosophy”, but don’t doubt that, as in any complicated system, I might find things to question.

    Nor am I happy with the state’s budget-“balancing” school funding gimmickry, which (among other things) boosts the need for local districts to require even financially challenged families to “fork over” too much for local school funding. (This is especially problematic for poorer school districts than Northfield’s.)

    Still … I hope that everybody’s praiseworthy search for perfection — whether philosophical or in the cause of rooting out “lavishness” — won’t somehow lead to taking it out on the kids. My own “philosophy”, for what it’s worth, is that voting for the levy doesn’t imply any personal endorsement of every individual policy. For better or worse we get to vote just once, on the whole package. I’ll vote yes.

    October 15, 2011
  13. kiffi summa said:

    I have never voted against a school district levy; this may be the first time, and I have not yet decided.

    The last levy was disturbing, because at that time the state was cutting back its school funding,putting more burden on the local framework, and there were many levies presented, If I remember correctly, many across the state did not pass.

    Every time a local district is able to pass a levy, and the state gov’t is ‘freed’ from its obligation to fund equal education for all the children of the state… many children from districts that cannot pass a local levy get their education diminished in comparison.

    If the more affluent districts keep passing levies to make up for the absent state funding, we support our children, but lessen the Common Good for all children.

    What if NO excess levies passed in MN? Would the legislature get the picture? Would that change the priorities in funding education?

    If ALL the people who are working to pass school levies all over MN, united, and worked only to change the legislative school funding priorities, would that not be a better outcome for ALL the children of this state?

    October 16, 2011
  14. john george said:

    Kiffi- You present an interesting perspective, here. If I understand school revenue sources correctly, each school district is funded by property taxes. The responsibility for collecting these taxes is placed upon the county in which the school district lies. It would seem that the state would have to have to have the sole collection/distribution responsibilities for taxes to allow the $$ per student to come out the same. So, the more populated counties would appear to have a disadvntage against the more sparsely populated counties as far as keeping as many tax $$ locally to fund the local schools. This is a general principal for those who believe in a strong central government. I’m assuming there could be some protests from local citizens when the taxes they pay are sent somewhere else, such as Cook county, to fund their schools. Also, we citizens do have a choice to ratify or deny these requests. If the state was carrying the sole responsibility, would it remove the possibility for local citizens to increase funds for their schools? This seems like a little dangerous direction for the state to take, especially in light of the overall decrease of tax revenues. I don’t know of any school districts anywhere, aside from possibly North Dakota, that have a surplus of funds.

    October 17, 2011
  15. William Siemers said:

    Kiffi…I have similar concerns. The current per student levy in Northfield is $1246 going to around $1600 if the initiative passes. Faribault’s levy is $385. Whether one is too high or the other too low, I don’t know…but something is out of whack.

    October 17, 2011
  16. Kathie Galotti said:


    Very interesting point, and one I hadn’t considered. This is why I like Locally Grown so much.

    October 17, 2011
  17. Kathie Galotti said:


    I agree with you that the state’s budget moves have been absolutely deplorable. If I end up voting for the levy (and I haven’t made up my mind yet), this will be the reason why.

    However, I don’t agree with you that voting for the levy will automatically improve education for “the kids.” Nor do I think that the status quo is doing great things for ALL of the kids. Yes, some Northfield kids do really well in our system. But others do not. And still others leave the district entirely–a growing number of families emigrate from NPS to various charter, private or home schooling. That’s voting with their feet. True, some of them do so out of religious or philosophical convictions—but I know plenty of families who’ve turned away in frustration. When my daughter completes 5th grade, in fact, I’m leaning toward becoming one of them.

    October 17, 2011
  18. David Ludescher said:


    If the levy passes, the school district will have more money to educate; if it doesn’t pass, the district will have less money. I don’t understand how the “Common Good” of other children is affected.

    The only way the state is going to have more money to educate is if we (and others) pass a levy (or tax) and send the money to St. Paul.

    October 17, 2011
  19. Paul Zorn said:


    I don’t believe, and didn’t say, anything about the levy “automatically” improving education. Nor would I ever assert (not clear whether you’re attributing this to me, too …) that that the status quo works for “ALL”. (We mathematicians use the universal quantifier grudgingly.) On the contrary, I have no doubt that the “status quo” works well for some students, indifferently for others, and poorly for still others. Can any system reasonably be expected to work well for “ALL”?

    My point, again, is not that the status quo is flawless, but that (IMO, of course) a levy failure would harm, not help, the general cause of education for “the kids”.

    PS. I don’t diss anyone who chooses non-public school alternatives … my two kids spent a total of 11 years at Prairie Creek (before it went charter).

    I stand by my view that

    October 17, 2011
  20. kiffi summa said:

    David: when I moved to MN, 22 years ago ( ! ) I was very impressed with the ‘state’ attitude towards education and who should fund it (mostly the legislature) and that as much as possible, education should be an equal benefit to students across the state, regardless of the wealth of their particular community.

    I have seen that “Common Good” erode, and now the quality of education may depend on the ability of a school district to pass an excess levy; I don’t believe that is as valuable a stance as is the more heavily state funded education philosophy of years ago.

    So I am just positing that if local levies were not always passed for fear that the local children will have their opportunities diminished, MAYBE the legislature would re-prioritize their funding decisions.

    If you don’t think ‘we’ have any control of this, then I don’t see how you can say we have representative government.

    And I certainly don’t think children of more affluent communities are any more deserving of education than those from less affluent communities, therefor I would like to ‘force’ more equal educational opportunity across the state.

    October 17, 2011
  21. David Ludescher said:


    I think local levies are passed because people know that local money is being used to provide local children greater opportunities. I would not support a levy if it meant sending the money to some state bureaucrat.

    October 17, 2011
  22. kiffi summa said:

    Well David… so much for supporting equal education for all children.

    What you expressed seems to say: let them be educated according to their parents ability to pay.

    I disagree most vehemently with that concept.

    October 17, 2011
  23. john george said:

    Kiffi and David- Do you both believe that the quality of education is directly proportional to the amount of money invested per student? If so, do Faribault’s students, who, according to William’s statistics in 9.2, appear to have less than 1/3 of the money spent on them than Northfield’s students, do worse in the various standards by which students’ performance is measured? Does anyone have any stats on this?

    October 18, 2011
  24. Paul Zorn said:


    I moved to Minnesota 30 years ago (you were still a child …) and was impressed then with what seemed to me a remarkable Minnesotan willingness to invest in common goods, including public education, and a conviction that state government, although surely not infallible, is a crucial player in our common investment in ourselves.

    These attitudes seem to me to have weakened over the years — perhaps most strikingly at the national level but also here in Minnesota. We used to believe by and large that government, broadly defined, has some responsibility and ability to do its (yes, imperfect) best to improve our general welfare and prosperity, and to monitor equity issues in the process. A lot of people now seem to see government in all its forms and activities as a necessary evil at best, bloated and incompetent in the middle, and a pure evil at worst. Tax money, from this perspective, is either simply wasted or encourages bad behavior.

    These attitudes are surely reflected in the fact that state government support for education has been flat or diminishing in real dollars for several years — not to mention the distasteful funding shifts and gimmicks our solons have cooked up. With flat funding, inflationary expenses, and new mandates to live up to, school districts have no practical alternatives to excess levies — bad as this funding model is. (It exacerbates differences between poor and rich districts, for one thing.)

    I think the state legislature should fund a larger share of school expenses — as it usually did in pre-Pawlenty days. There’s no free lunch, of course — the state would either need to raise new revenue or de-fund something else. But funding equitable educational opportunities, as the state constitution requires, is primarily a state responsibility.

    The right way to work toward this goal, IMO, is to jawbone or cajole or persuade — or un-elect — legislators who disagree. The wrong way, IMO, is to defeat school levies in the short run. Doing so would not just force cuts, some Draconian, on our schools. It would also, I fear, send the unintended message to legislators that much diminished funding is good enough.

    October 18, 2011
  25. kiffi summa said:

    Paul… flattery will get you nowhere: I was 45, 30 years ago! 🙂

    I completely agree with all of the history you give and the values that WERE embedded in the state’s governance, re: education.
    But where I disagree is that “draconian” cuts will be necessary if the first part of the levy does not pass; I think kids are engaged by good teachers , not necessarily by “smart boards” and that good teachers are more necessary than technologies, and indeed, less skilled teachers can be ‘propped up’ by technology.

    I also understand that voting “no” on the principle of sending a message to the state that they should seriously re-prioritize school funding is an unclear message, except as part of what I wish were a larger movement to protest the lack of state funding.
    But sometimes we must vote our principles, and I just despise the idea that education… which should be equal for all.. may depend on a community’s ability to fund an excess levy.

    October 18, 2011
  26. Paul Zorn said:

    Griff et al.,

    The nominal subject of this thread (classroom technology and its effectiveness) is interesting in its own right.

    But the two proposed excess (hate that word …) levies — one for operating expenses and the other for capital projects — raise different and larger questions. SMART boards and other instructional technologies are in this context just tails. If we let them wag the levy dog it could come back to bite us. (Time to leash that metaphor.)

    Some facts to keep in mind:

    1. The capital projects levy would maintain, not raise the amount of, the existing capital projects levy. In that sense it’s just more of the same.

    2. The capital projects levy is contingent on passage of the operating (aka referendum revenue) levy. If the latter fails, so does the former.

    3. Instructional technology is only part (a small part, I’m guessing) of what’s funded by the capital projects levy. As this explains, these monies also support general maintenance and improvement of the district’s physical plant and grounds.

    Whether a levy failure would cause problems worthy of Draco is perhaps a matter of definition, but there’s more at stake here than technology policy.

    October 18, 2011
  27. Griff Wigley said:

    Thanks, Paul.

    I had intended to create a separate blog post for the operating levy or maybe one for the overall excess levies question… but I failed!

    I’m hoping that one or more other news sites/blogs in town attended the LWV forum with Supt. Chris Richardson last night and will have a write-up published soon. I’ll create a blog post as soon as that appears.

    October 18, 2011
  28. David Ludescher said:


    If I understand the levy mechanics correctly, the failure of the levy would mean that the old levy remains in place as is until 2013. There would be NO loss of revenue at this time.

    October 18, 2011
  29. David Ludescher said:


    The Minnesota educational system is one of the most evenly funded of all government programs. Some communities have more funding because the citizens voluntarily support it – just like private and parochial schools.

    The funding doesn’t make as much difference as the parental involvement, teacher commitment, and other intangibles. St. Dominic School takes no money from the state and educates its students for much less per pupil than any public school.

    October 18, 2011
  30. Paul Zorn said:

    David L,

    Re this:

    If I understand the levy mechanics correctly, the failure of the levy would mean that the old levy remains in place as is until 2013. There would be NO loss of revenue at this time.

    I think you’re right about this — but note the “at this time” condition.

    According to Dr. Richardson at the LWV forum last night, failure of this levy would require something like $900K of cuts for 13/14, and at least $4m in the following year.

    I don’t know whether it’s possible, if the present levies fail, to try again in time to avert such cuts. Either way, I’m convinced that there’s a legitimate need for additional funding now. One reason is that the existing levy was planned on the (reasonable, had sanity prevailed …) assumption that the state would do its part in recent years. We all know what happened on that front.

    October 18, 2011
  31. Kathie Galotti said:


    You said in 9.4.5

    t would also, I fear, send the unintended message to legislators that much diminished funding is good enough.


    I agree with you about this worry. I also agree with you and with others that education IS a critically important public good.

    But here’s my dilemma. I also feel strongly (informed partly by reading some of the relevant literature in educational psychology) that the things that matter most for kids’ education are, in priority order:
    a. highly qualified and motivated teachers
    b. excellent partnerships between schools and families
    c. administration that is committed to taking tough stands where necessary to improve instruction.

    And I’ve said on this blog over the years many times, I don’t think Northfield does enough to ensure these things–they don’t root out the problem teachers (who are small in number, true, but cause a disproportionate amount of damage to the kids they interact with); I sure as HELL don’t think the district communicates well with parents, esp. at the high school, and, while we have a couple of EXCELLENT principals, we also have some that turn a blind eye to widespread problems in their buildings. Allowing the same problems to recur year after year after year to student after student after student.

    These factors matter a WHOLE lot more than smart boards, software systems, etc, as Griff’s initial links substantiate.

    So, my question for you is, wouldn’t voting YES to the levy send the unintended message to the school district that we thought they were doing (in the words of George W. Bush to FEMA after Katererina) “a heckuva job?” If I vote yes, aren’t I just endorsing that what’s going on is good enough?

    What if I think there are real, substantial, and pervasive problems in the way the district handles its resources (technological, with SMART boards, but even more so in the way it turns a blind eye to personnel problems?)

    Might it not be smart and strategic, if one wanted to send a wake up call to top district administration, to vote NO on the levy NOW, and hope for real change before the next vote?

    The district PLANS to come back in a year if the levy fails this time–Dr. R. said so in a school board meeting that I watched on NTV. That’s part of their whole strategy.

    Shouldn’t taxpayers be strategic in their votes, too, especially when at this stage of the game, there aren’t real financial costs to kick in?

    The 4 milliion in cuts, btw, comes only if THIS levy fails AND the one that is in existence is also cut to zero. Surely there is middle ground.

    October 18, 2011
  32. Paul Zorn said:

    John G,

    You ask above:

    Do you both believe that the quality of education is directly proportional to the amount of money invested per student? …
    [Do] Faribault’s students, who, according to William’s statistics in 9.2, appear to have less than 1/3 of the money spent on them than Northfield’s students, do worse in the various standards by which students’ performance is measured? Does anyone have any stats on this?

    First, the premise of your question is incorrect. The figures William mentions in 9.2 are for the respective excess levies in the two districts — not total spending on education. According to Dr. Richardson (and to my surprise) total spending per student in Faribault is actually higher than in Northfield. (Faribault’s local levy is lower, but the difference is apparently more than made up for by higher state contributions, reflecting economic and demographic differences between our two cities.)

    As for educational outcomes being “directly proportional” to money spent … I’ve never heard anyone suggest such a thing. For one thing, educational outcomes aren’t measurable on a single scale, so it makes little sense to expect (say) doubling expenditures to double outcomes, as “directly proportional” would imply. For another thing, it seems clear that educational outcomes are linked not only to school district “inputs” but also to factors—economics, family stability, community support, outside expectations, etc.—over which school districts have limited control.

    So much said, it’s not difficult to find some comparative information on various Minnesota school districts (and schools) online. Here is one place to look.

    October 18, 2011
  33. john george said:

    Thanks for clarifying the difference in the levy amount per student between Faribault and Northfield. I misread William’s comment.

    I believe, as you so thoroughly explained, that there are more factors affecting educational outcomes than just the $$ per student invested. I was picking up an inference in the discussion between Kiffi & David L. that there was a direct correlation. That is why I asked them if they really believed that or if I just misunderstood them.

    October 18, 2011
  34. Paul Zorn said:


    I think I addressed some of this, at least generally, in 8.1.1. But to your specific question:

    … wouldn’t voting YES to the levy send the unintended message to the school district that we thought they were doing … “a heckuva job?” If I vote yes, aren’t I just endorsing that what’s going on is good enough?

    My answer, since you ask …


    Voting for the levy (or against it, for that matter) doesn’t seem to me a blanket endorsement (or refutation) of all things 659. Nor does voting either way disqualify anyone from sounding off on things perceived as good or bad. On the contrary, it could be argued not entirely un-speciously that our interest in being heard on educational matters is, uh, directly proportional to our monetary investment in the district.

    Pro-levy or con-, we all want good schools and have every right to praise or diss what we see as good or bad. The levy, IMO, is too blunt an instrument of persuasion to be effective.

    October 18, 2011
  35. William Siemers said:

    Paul…I don’t know why the school district would send out a pamphlet that makes it look like things are ‘out of whack’ between the Faribault and Northfield levy but that’s sure the impression I got. I could not find any comparison of total funding per student through the link you provided. In any case, if Faribault spends more per student than Northfield but has a much lower levy, then isn’t the state equalizing funding between districts? Does that mean that our concerns about equality of educational opportunity are misplaced?

    October 19, 2011
  36. Paul, your point is interesting in part for the measurability problem it raises (how do we measure performance)? I have sometimes thought that the school’s ability to correct for home problems is an insurmountable problem. However, an interesting study refutes that

    “Despite conventional wisdom that school inputs make little difference in student learning, a growing body of research suggests that schools can make a difference, and a substantial portion of that difference is attributable to teachers(1). [emphasis added]”

    This paper then goes on to state that

    Recent studies of teacher effects at the classroom level using the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System and a similar data base in Dallas, Texas, have found that differential teacher effectiveness is a strong determinant of differences in student learning, far outweighing the effects of differences in class size and heterogenity (Sanders & Rivers, 1996; Wright, Horn, & Sanders, 1997; Jordan, Mendro, & Weerasinghe, 1997). Students who are assigned to several ineffective teachers in a row have significantly lower achievement and gains in achievement than those who are assigned to several highly effective teachers in sequence (Sanders & Rivers, 1996). Teacher effects appear to be additive and cumulative, and generally not compensatory.

    So, this would seem to argue that we are attempting to fix a leaky boat by adding ballast rather than by patching the holes. Unfortunately, many (myself included) have not wanted to hold teachers accountable (“assign blame”) because we had bought into the “home environment trumps school environment” argument. This argument, like many such conventional wisdom arguments, appears to be both facile and wrong.

    Note that this and other studies have learned how to measure outcomes, and how to predict those outcomes from the inputs. The models they develop seem to clearly suggest that the homilies (small classrooms, more teachers, bigger budgets) are not correlated with success nearly as much as we might hope. This means that to improve the education of our students we need to be willing to look for answers not where the light is good, but where the answers are to be found. Powerful groups may want to defend their members ruthlessly behind a shield of unaccountability through unmeasurability may find it hard to swallow this bitter medicine, but if we are to hope to improve our children’s future, perhaps we need to start now.


    (1) Teacher Quality and Student Achievement: A Review of State Policy Evidence. Darling-Hammond, 2000

    (2) Teacher Qualifications and First-Grade Achievement: A Multilevel Analysis. Croninger et al, 2003

    October 19, 2011
  37. Paul Zorn said:


    It seems perfectly reasonable for the Nfld district to offer comparative data for excess levies in other nearby or comparable districts. Do you suspect some questionable motive?

    Yes, state support for K-12 does vary to some degree from district to district. Much, much (much!) more information about this can be found in many places, like here; see Table 10 on page 17, for instance, to get started.

    The data (if I read them correctly) suggest that state funds provide about $5.8bn for PK-12 annually, including about $4.8bn in “basic formula” funding, and another $1bn total in about a dozen other special categories, including such things as gifted and talented programs, “transportation sparsity” revenue, etc.

    How far these monies go toward “equalizing funding” across rich and poor districts is debatable, I guess. But “extra” money a sparsely populated district might receive to compensate for higher busing costs is not available to improve programs. Just a guess, but I doubt that these compensatory payments come close to leveling the instructional playing field for poor vs. rich districts.

    Some school funding comes from federal sources, too. I haven’t researched any numbers here … anybody else interested? … but hear anecdotally that these funds are generally inadequate to support the mandates that they supposedly address.

    Bottom line, IMO: The state does something, but less than it should, to address school funding inequities.

    October 19, 2011
  38. kiffi summa said:

    So, if Faribault’s local levy is lower, and the state “makes up” by contributing more to F’s schools does that mean we are telling the state we (NF) doesn’t need state educational support because we are willing to pay for it ourselves?

    That is probably way too simplistic, but I would like some informed explanation, rather than going through a lot of state statistics, although i will do that also.

    I guess the clearer question would be: How does the amount of excess levy approved by a community affect the state’s contribution to education dollars for that community?

    October 19, 2011
  39. Kathie Galotti said:


    Beautifully and articulately presented.

    October 19, 2011
  40. Paul Zorn said:


    To your “clearer” question:

    How does the amount of excess levy approved by a community affect the state’s contribution to education dollars for that community?

    I’m pretty sure the answer is “not at all”.

    I haven’t researched it deeply, but none of the 13 categories of state funding discussed in the source I mentioned in message 12 seems to take any account of the presence or absence of local levy revenue. To put it another way: I don’t see any sense in which the state “makes up” for failed local levies.

    October 19, 2011
  41. Patrick Enders said:

    If anyone wants to look closely at the formulas for calculating state aid, the equations (as of Sept 2010) seem to be included in this document:

    “Minnesota School Finance – A Guide for Legislators”

    October 19, 2011
  42. Paul Zorn said:


    Interesting indeed, and heartening in the sense that these studies point to factors that school districts can have some control over. I’m all in favor of accountability, (valid) measurement, and looking for answers anywhere they might exist.

    That said, let’s respect but not over-interpret these interesting studies. While they claim (and seem to me) to show “substantial” effects of good and bad teaching, it doesn’t follow that other factors can’t also have “substantial” effects on learning.

    In any case, do you draw any particular lessons from these studies about the wisdom or folly of supporting schools, whether through levies of other channels? (No reason you have to … just wondering.)

    October 19, 2011
  43. Thanks Paul. Yes, the main lesson I draw is that the levy will pass or fail based on fear-mongering, not reason. And I am very much opposed to letting local school districts raise money as I think it favors rich districts over poorer districts. But I do not know if I favor starving the local beast until the State-central beast gets its Constitutionally mandated ducks in a row. I am not, however, strongly motivated by most of the arguments I see here or in the press. This could be another example where I decide while standing at the voting table.

    October 19, 2011
  44. Paul Zorn said:


    Love your zoological metaphors: starving the beast while getting one’s ducks in a row . Add a dog in the fight and you’ve got a whole menagerie.

    I’d plead guilty myself to not always voting in a rigorously reasoned manner. But I don’t see any unusual “fear-mongering” on either side of this issue, unless perhaps some unruly ducks threaten to get out of control. What I mainly “fear” in this case is that people’s legitimate concerns for things school-related (the funding system, teacher evaluation models, test scores, communication with parents, etc. ) will lead them to shoot the baby in the bathwater through the foot. Sometimes the perfect really is the enemy of the best-among-available-alternatives.

    October 19, 2011
  45. David Ludescher said:

    Paul and Bruce,

    Can you mathematicians explain to me the funding system? How can Faribault spend more per student but have a lower levy? Could it be that Northfield has to have a higher excess levy just to equal Faribault? If that is the case, then state funding actually favors the poorer districts and excess levies are the only way for Northfield to level the playing field (dollar-wise).

    Also, trying to assess results is a tricky business. For example, private schools generally have better results for a variety of reasons, including attracting the better students, paying teachers less, offering fewer services, and greater parental control over expenditures. Thus, St. Dominic School can get better results with one-half of the money the public schools spend. It doesn’t necessarily prove anything.

    October 19, 2011
  46. john george said:

    Bruce & Paul- It seems we are reverting to pre-pioneer days. First, it is geese in Ames park. Then, it is beavers in the flood control ponds along Jefferson Parkway. Now, it is errant ducks in the school system. What is next? Will people be harrassed for squirreling away their money?

    October 19, 2011
  47. Paul Zorn said:


    There’s no arcane mathematics at work here.

    State funding does indeed vary from district to district (see #12, just above), as does federal funding (though the feds are relatively minor players, if I understand correctly). So there’s nothing mathematically mysterious about the possibility that per-pupil funding from state and federal sources is enough higher than that in Northfield to more than compensate for the difference in excess levies. (I confess I was surprised to hear this, but not for mathematical reasons.)

    In a purely numerical sense I suppose one might describe this as the state “favoring” poorer districts. But it doesn’t follow (and I don’t think you’re asserting) that such “favoritism” is wasteful or blameworthy.

    In Faribault, for instance, 17% of students have “limited English proficiency”; the corresponding figure in Northfield is 8% (says the Minn. Dep’t of Ed.) The special ed population is also higher in Faribault than in Northfield. These students presumably cost extra money to educate; for the state and the feds to provide some such money does not necessarily un-level any playing fields.

    I favor the proposed levies not because they help us keep up with Faribault, or because I think schools here or there are flawless. I support the levies because, IMO, they’re sensible investments in the future of our own kids, and hence of ourselves.

    October 19, 2011
  48. kiffi summa said:

    Paul: with reference to #11… obvious that i have neither my ‘ducks in a row’ nor my questions clear… but in your first paragraph, last sentence, you say (referring to FB’s lower levy but higher per student expenditures) ” … the difference is apparently more than MADE UP for by higher state contributions.”


    Since you linked FB’s “lower levy” and “made up for ” by higher state contributions, this old duck needs some further clarification of your understanding of the reason for those higher $$…

    October 19, 2011
  49. William Siemers said:

    Paul…It looks like there are many ways that the state can help ‘poorer’ districts. (Thanks for the link, Patrick). That, as far as I am concerned, is a good thing. Faribault should have more state aid than Northfield given the demographics of the two communities.

    Regarding the economics of the levy: According to the brochure, property taxes will go down by about 5 1/2 million dollars in 2012 if the levies are defeated. The school district will then have to cut $900,000 from its budget for school year 2013-2014. 5 and a half million dollars more for Northfielders to spend and invest next year in return for $900,000 in cuts. Personally I think the school board could find the cuts without much impact on education while the millions in people’s pockets would be very good for the town. Further out, in school year 2014-15 and beyond, the impact on the school board is much more severe. But couldn’t the levies be revoted on next fall to eliminate or lessen that? Seems like 5 1/2 million would be a heck of a stimulus package for Northfield. Am I missing something?

    October 20, 2011
  50. Paul Zorn said:


    Can Northfield really get $5.5 million to spend elsewhere in return for $0.9m in school cuts? I don’t think so.

    If it were real this would be a heckuva deal: Indeed, we could pay back the $0.9m out of our $5.5m winnings and still have $4.6m left over.

    I hope people more familiar than I (Ray?) with 659 district funding arcana will weigh in on this, but here are some problems I see with the supposed 5.5-for-0.9 windfall.

    First and most important, defeating the proposed new levy will not, if I read the ballot correctly, revoke the existing levy. The $5.5m “saving” you allude to is, to my eye, just a ledger offset against the $6.9m the new levy asks for. The difference, $1.4m, represents proposed “new” spending.

    Second — and irrespective of how and when the accounting is actually done — I see no way that defeating the levy proposal (or passing it, for that matter) puts any new money into the system. The live question, seems to me, is how we allocate money already in the Northfield economy.

    Third, is it really clear that the school board could cut $900k (pushing 3% of the budget, I think) “without much impact on education”? I’m not sure you’re wrong, but wonder whether you base this view on specifics about district 659, or on a general principle that large enterprises can always cut back.

    October 21, 2011
  51. William Siemers said:

    Paul…Regarding ballot question #1, the operating levy: The chart on page 4 of the ‘Levy Referendum Guide’ shows 2012 ‘revoked authority’ (I assume this means rejected) of negative $5,484,228 in revenue from property tax, and 2012 ‘proposed authority’ (I assume this means passed) of positive $6,928,940 revenue from property tax. The same table then shows a ‘net change in 2012 (if passed) of $1,444,771. This, and the fact the same chart shows my taxes going down by $750 in 2012 if rejected, and up by only $201 if passed, leads me to think that not passing the measure will, in fact, cancel the existing operating levy. But that might not be a bad thing.

    According to the text accompanying the chart the first impact of rejection is not until 2013-14 school year and will then force only $900,000 in cuts. I don’t know how the budget years go, but it sure looks to me like the first (relatively minor) impact is in two years, while the tax savings for every property owner is substantial and next year. Seems like a good time for a TAX HOLIDAY!

    Of course the last thing the school board wants is to have an election next year which asks folks to reinstate/enlarge the ENTIRE LEVY. Pretty hard to ask for 3.5% of market value per year when property owners wouldn’t be paying a thing toward an operating levy. And it would be REALLY hard to get passed next year since most folks will actually be voting in the presidential year election. Much better for the school board to do it now, and hope that the usual interested parties show up for this one issue election. But is this schedule best for citizens? I say let’s take the Tax Holiday and put it in front of voters next year. The result will be more democratically determined, people will have a windfall to spend and invest, and it seems there will not be much impact on the schools.

    October 21, 2011
  52. David Ludescher said:


    The school district is asking for the maximum allowed under state law for the maximum period of time allowed. If the referendum doesn’t pass, we will pay under the old levy amount.

    October 21, 2011
  53. Kathie Galotti said:


    You’re right. However, William’s underlying thought , while wrong in detail, might merit consideration: why not vote the proposed measure down now, and revisit it in a year or two when

    a) The school district has time to convince more of us that it is doing things like prioritizing resources AND ADDRESSING PERSONNEL ISSUES (sorry, sore point with me)

    b) More citizens who will be affected are voting

    Even IF it fails now, that does not mean that horrendous educational cuts will have to be made.

    October 21, 2011
  54. Paul Zorn said:

    Kathy, William,

    As you know, I disagree with the idea that a levy should serve as a referendum on individual school district policies. I might change my mind if I saw evidence that the district’s policies were seriously or broadly askew or that the district was flagrantly profligate with resources. I see no such evidence, but understand that perspectives may differ.

    I have no clear idea about the practical effects or the political pros and cons of “revisiting” this question a year or two down the road, or whether “horrendous” educational cuts would be necessary. Depends on how one defines “horrendous”, perhaps, but I’m guessing that the necessary cuts would be felt — and their effects likely exacerbated by the prevailing follies at the state level.

    Whether “revisiting” this in 2012, concurrent with national elections, would somehow promote more democracy is also far from clear to me. On the contrary, the 2012 presidential election and the marriage amendment seem more likelier to suck all oxygen out of the debating room.

    October 21, 2011
  55. David Ludescher said:


    Now is a good time for this referendum – even if it were to fail. The parts that I dislike are that the referendum is for the maximum amount of money for the maximum amount of time. In my opinion, it is never prudent to have a government body in possession of more money than is actually “needed” without an urgent need. The human tendency is to squander the money on non-essentials (e.g. bike trails that can’t be ridden upon, redesigned parking lots, pedestrian crossings, bridges to nowhere, etc.)

    That said, the higher levy might not mean more money because the added revenue is going to set off by the legislature’s decision to delay payments to the school districts.

    I am comforted by the fact that local school districts have a history of being the most prudent of all governmental bodies. That may be due to a number of factors – no independent taxing authority, competing budgetary influences, significant public oversight, non-politicization of the governing officials, and the need for referendums to raise money.

    My biggest beef with school referendums is that the taxation distribution is so unfair, especially for business real property owners. The tax should be spread across to people, not properties.

    October 21, 2011
  56. Kathie Galotti said:


    I respect your position about not using the levy vote to send a message. Believe me, if I thought there were ANY other way of getting the school district to listen, I wouldn’t even be considering it. But emails, meetings, letters, discussions–over a six-year period, have had virtually no effect. Either in my own experience or that of several other parents I’ve talked with over the years. Most of them eventually just quietly pulled their kids out of Northfield Public schools and went elsewhere. I am probably going to have to do the same.

    It bothers me, though, that Northfield serves its customers so poorly. Or at least, some of them. The things I’ve asked for–making ALL teachers give help to struggling students, making ALL teachers give timely feedback to students, making ALL teachers return phone calls or emails from parents…..are things that are FREE to do. Our superintendent, brilliant as he is at budgeting (and whining and pointing fingers at the state) has absolutely no interest in addressing personnel problems.

    Paul, believe me, I want to support the levy. It’s in my nature to prioritize education and to support it wholeheartedly. But I don’t want to be a chump. If this levy goes through and the school district gets all the money it wants, there will likely be no change. And more kids will be hurt.

    October 21, 2011
  57. William Siemers said:

    David…ok. I now get it. They ask us to revoke the current levy and replace it with a new levy for 10 years at the maximum amount. So no cause for jubilation over a significant tax holiday. Voting no would only let property owners save a million and a half dollars next year.

    The current levy expires for the 2014-2015 school year. Under the current levy (a No vote), the budget for the system next year (2012-2013) will be one million dollars higher than this year’s budget. Two years from now it will, under the current levy, have a budget that is exactly the same as this year’s budget. They do not need a levy increase for next year and barely need one for the year after that. So why is this a ‘good time’ for the election?

    October 22, 2011
  58. William Siemers said:

    Paul…I guess I think that 60 or 70% of voters weighing in on an issue gives a more representative (democratic) result than the much smaller percentage that will vote in this off year, one issue election. But aside from that, I will vote no because, according to their figures, they do not need the money in 2012. Their budget, under a no vote, is still going up by a million dollars for school year 2012-2013. In 2012, they do not need, nor do they have budgeted to spend, the extra million and a half of taxpayer money that will, under a yes vote, be collected. If someone can explain why the school system has to collect taxpayer money that it doesn’t need, I will listen. Otherwise I say vote it down and let them come back when they actually need the money.

    October 22, 2011
  59. john george said:

    William- For the school district, this may be a more advantageous election that 2012. I think the whole marriage amendment issue has greater draw for many people than the presidential election, so I’m not sure that catagorizing 2011 as an “off year” election is completely accurate. I may be surprised, but I’m wondering if there is some significance in this election being considered by the school district for that reason.

    October 22, 2011
  60. William Siemers said:

    In Saturday’s Northfield News the superintendent states: “If it does not pass we have a one year cushion.” The superintendent’s charts and text in the school board’s levy guide show the money is not needed next year. The school system’s budget goes up by a million dollars next year under the current levy. They have plenty of money for next year without changing the levy.
    By the superintendent’s own words and figures, the system would collect the new money in 2012 but not begin to spend it until autumn of 2013. They would collect about 2.2 million dollars before they begin to need it or intend to spend it. Taking this amount of money out of the economy of Northfield for no good reason is unacceptable.

    October 23, 2011
  61. kiffi summa said:

    In 14.2.4, it is said: ” I think the whole marriage amendment issue has greater draw for people than the presidential election…”

    Ye Gods and little fishes! If that is so, in ANYONE’S mind, then what have we come to?

    October 23, 2011
  62. Griff Wigley said:

    Today’s NY Times (another in their series): A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute

    The chief technology officer of eBay sends his children to a nine-classroom school here. So do employees of Silicon Valley giants like Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard.

    But the school’s chief teaching tools are anything but high-tech: pens and paper, knitting needles and, occasionally, mud. Not a computer to be found. No screens at all. They are not allowed in the classroom, and the school even frowns on their use at home.

    Schools nationwide have rushed to supply their classrooms with computers, and many policy makers say it is foolish to do otherwise. But the contrarian point of view can be found at the epicenter of the tech economy, where some parents and educators have a message: computers and schools don’t mix.

    This is the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, one of around 160 Waldorf schools in the country that subscribe to a teaching philosophy focused on physical activity and learning through creative, hands-on tasks. Those who endorse this approach say computers inhibit creative thinking, movement, human interaction and attention spans.

    The Waldorf method is nearly a century old, but its foothold here among the digerati puts into sharp relief an intensifying debate about the role of computers in education.

    October 23, 2011
  63. Griff Wigley said:

    And Waldorf related: Technology, Schools and a Big Black Bug

    But like other parents who send their children to schools built around Waldorf principles, Dan said he didn’t worry that he was setting Harry back by keeping the bits and bytes at arm’s length.

    “The devices are so easy to learn now,” Dan said of Harry. “I’ve got zero doubt he can function in the high-tech world. I often think about how Steve Jobs and Bill Gates didn’t grow up with technology.”

    By contrast, Dan thinks that Harry learns invaluable early-life lessons by being in an environment that emphasizes engaging with a teacher and being in nature (at his school, classes tend to spend a half-day each week on a field trip in nature, like hiking). Dan thinks Harry tends to take his time, examine his surroundings and the people he’s with (or the beetles) and not be so susceptible to switching from one task to the next. Some evidence suggests that heavy technology use, for all its extraordinary benefits, can shorten attention span.

    October 23, 2011
  64. john george said:

    Griff- Your two articles would seem to point to an idea that I have heard expressed before in different circle. Einstein didn’t need a computer to come up with all his equations, and we didn’t win WWII using computers.

    October 23, 2011
  65. kiffi summa said:

    Wm. is making some very good points here…

    Why should this money be voted for before it is needed, and why is the election this year so much more advantageous than next year?
    One would have to think the expectation is that when there is a single election issue there is more focus on only that vote, but that could work both to the disadvantage or the advantage of its passage.
    I assume the school district wants to assure its future $$, and would like that issue put to rest; but might not next year , hopefully, be a bit economically better to assure a supportive vote?

    And here’s another question: putting on an election is not cheap. he city clerk used to say about 8K; but when the cost of a citywide referendum on a new safety center was brought up, the cost had escalated to 20-25K!

    Why ‘waste’ that money now, if the school district is prepared to ask the question next year if needed?

    October 23, 2011
  66. David Ludescher said:


    It is a “good time” for the levy because we don’t have a looming crisis. Plus, if the levy fails, there is current funding, and the issue can be revisited.

    October 24, 2011
  67. Eric Sieger said:

    Full disclosure prior to posting: My wife is a teacher in the Northfield Public Schools and I have one child in elementary school and another who will start next year.

    One point that I want to add that hasn’t been talked about much with this levy or education in general in Minnesota is a potential loss in a huge competitive advantage.

    By the state not funding education (whether it be K-12 or higher ed) or if Northfield doesn’t pass this levy, are either/both entities losing a competitive edge? Whether you think the district is using its money well, overall I think you’d have to agree on some level the education our children receive here in Northfield is pretty solid, if not superior. If the levy fails now and later, does that lessen Northfield as a community in its ability to attract potential employers, professor to the two colleges, etc.?

    For the state, I think it’s the same thing. Minnesota is home to some great companies (3M, Target, Best Buy, SuperValu, UnitedHealth, etc.), but if we don’t have a great education system to supply those companies with an educated workforce and to help those companies attract top employees, than what do we have to offer as a state? Certainly not the weather! It seems like education has long been a huge competitive advantage for both Northfield and Minnesota. Losing that advantage, IMO, really diminishes both.

    The other thing I want to add is that if you think classes going from 20 to 30 at the elementary level and from 30 to 40 or whatever they might be in middle school/high school will have little or no impact on the quality of education our students will receive, you’re living in a dream world. I suggest you volunteer in a local classroom and see firsthand the sort of challenges facing our educators in this day and age. My mother taught in 3 different states when I was growing up and now my wife has taught here and in Michigan for 15 years, and things are so much more challenging in the classroom than when my wife first started.

    October 24, 2011
  68. William Siemers said:

    Eric…A good educational system is indeed part of an environment that makes a nation/state/community competitive. But voting for every educational tax initiative that is advanced does not insure that competitive advantage, probably just the opposite. Each initiative has to be judged on its own merits. Beyond that, the timing of the initiative is a critical consideration, both for the school system and the community.

    There is no crisis of funding for the school system. It is in reasonably good shape for a couple of years and no drastic cuts are contemplated. As the superintendent said, he has a “cushion”. I’d argue that, right now, the community has no such cushion. People need, for many reasons, to hold onto as much of their money as they can. Higher property taxes, and resulting higher rents, would for many citizens, be a tough pill to swallow, even if the schools needed the money. But the schools don’t need the new levy money, and given that, I’d say this initiative fails the timing test.

    October 24, 2011
  69. Paul Zorn said:


    I agree fully about the value of supporting education, not only as the right thing to do (which it is) for our kids, but also as an investment, including in the economic sense, in our common quality of life. Minnesota has, compared to other states, enjoyed considerable economic and quality-of-life success over the last 40 years. IMO these successes derive not from any mythical upper Midwestern virtue, but from conscious (and praiseworthy) choices to invest in rather than low-ball education and other public goods.

    It’s a shame (in this case not just a figure of speech …) that a strong strain of state governmental ideology now runs to retreat from and disinvestment in public goods. State-level financing of public education — essentially flat in nominal dollars, declining in real dollars — in recent years is evidence of this dispiriting trend. It’s also the best argument for the necessity of providing local funding for schools.

    It’s always fair to ask what we can afford, and whether a proposed expenditure, even if affordable, is reasonable and prudent. The proposed levy seems to me to meet these tests. If it passes, our levy would be comparable to those in districts to which we compare our own — and with which our kids compete well.

    No expenditure, public or private, is painless, and money spent on one thing, even education, can’t also be spent on something else. But education should come near the top of any list. It’s hard to imagine a better investment, with better prospects of a good return, than improving education.

    October 25, 2011
  70. Paul Zorn said:


    I don’t follow this:

    [V]oting for every educational tax initiative that is advanced does not insure that competitive advantage, probably just the opposite.

    What do you mean, in particular, by “just the opposite”? Would a levy failure somehow “insure competitive advantage”? Or what?

    Setting the bar for school support at the “crisis” level, or to avert “drastic cuts”, seems to me unwise. Yes, money is tight, but money spent on education is not thrown away. On the contrary, money spent on education stays right here in the community in the immediate term, and helps our kids (poorer kids, particularly) on the long path toward becoming productive (and solvent) citizens themselves.

    Northfield class sizes have increased and circumstances otherwise straitened since 2003, when the last of my kids left Northfield schools. Why should today’s kids have less?

    Our schools need the levy money.

    October 25, 2011
  71. Paul, I think that the more accountable politicians of today would feel quite good about increasing expenditures if they thought that the school systems would actually attempt to remove some of the tenured deadwood in favor of the young, energetic and highly skilled teachers that schools like St. Olaf turn out. I think, however, that they may feel that simply throwing money at the system will only serve to reward entrenched self-interests that have proven incapable of doing what they have been hired to do, and who seem inclined to simple do more of the same at a higher volume (empowered by all that great new technology).

    October 25, 2011
  72. William Siemers said:

    Paul…What I mean is that if every initiative was passed, in every circumstance, the competitive advantage of the community or state could very well suffer because the tax burden would so high it would discourage investment.
    I hate to beat this horse to death…but the schools do not intend to even use the additional money for almost two years. According to the budget figures, this money will NOT be spent on education next year. This money will NOT be invested in children next year. They are spending a million dollars more in 2012-13 than they are this year under the current levy. That’s about a 2.5% increase with no increased levy. The new money would stay in Northfield all right. Right in the school board’s bank account doing nothing for children and nothing for the community. I ask again, why is this initiative on the ballot this year?

    October 25, 2011
  73. Paul Zorn said:


    I’m not here to defend “tenured deadwood” against youth, energy, and skill (though as a tenured “veteran” myself, with plenty of young and skilled and energetic colleagues I should perhaps rethink this position … ).

    If “tenured deadwood” or inappropriate technology use are indeed serious local problems — I have no idea — then they should be addressed. But downing reasonable school levies seems a blunt and collaterally-damaging instrument to accomplish such things.

    Sure, “simply throwing money at the system” is bad, but is that being proposed? I don’t think so. I’ve seen no evidence that local school expenditures are disproportionate either to results achieved or to what comparable districts spend.

    October 25, 2011
  74. Eric Sieger said:

    Interesting article in light of our discussion about competitive advantages being lost: MN Business Journal: MN manufacturers: Not enough skilled workers to fill jobs

    William, I didn’t advocate for voting for every levy, every time. I was simply pointing out that maintaining our state and community’s competitive advantage isn’t getting much play in this discussion, and I feel it should. My opinion, FWIW, is that the Northfield School District, on the whole, has been very good stewards of taxpayer money, giving our children a superior (not perfect, but superior) education. I think the district, with tons of community input and a high level of transparency, has worked to decrease inefficiencies and put a bulk of our taxpayer dollars towards educating our students vs. administrative salaries. I think I saw somewhere that Northfield ranked among the best in the state in this category, around 80 percent.

    I would also disagree that the district doesn’t need the money now. I think the Safety Center analogy is spot on. “Oh, it’s good enough” we’ve been saying all along. Now it’s not, and in this tough economic time it’s time to pay the piper. One could argue the same thing for our public library and a recreational center–our community could have benefited from new facilities in those areas two decades ago (at least in the case of a Rec Center), but we’re still wanting in those areas. I applaud the district for being out in front and trying to plan ahead for its needs to maintain its current levels of education it gives to the community, and certainly what would be wrong with trying to improve!

    Also, I would guess the district will need some of that money sooner than later to cover financing costs incurred when the state raids the school district’s accounts to cover its deficits.

    October 25, 2011
  75. Eric, without conducting a good analysis controlling for home environment I fear that “quality in, quality out” (based on having a lot of students coming from highly advantaged homes) might explain a lot more of Northfield’s standing than a simple dollars per student analysis would suggest. The opponents of the levy may have similar intuitions. My meager attempts to raise the teacher quality issue have been based in part on a similar concern, though I am attempting to move out of the realm of intuition and into the realm of evidence-based decision making.

    October 25, 2011
  76. Kathie Galotti said:

    Paul (and Bruce):

    “Tenured deadwood” conjures up images of addled, feeble staff who’ve lost the physical or mental capacity to do the job. Those (in my experience, rarely-occurring) situations are tragic and immensely difficult to address.

    Those AREN’T (again, in my experience) a big problem in Northfield Public Schools. The problems I refer to are ones of laziness or inattentiveness or lack of commitment to students. In other words, stuff that’s relatively easy to address, if only the public schools were really about education.

    And Paul, if it makes you feel any better, the terrific teachers in Northfield (of which there are plenty) are, again in my experience, young, old and everything in between. I just don’t see much correlation of energy and age when it comes to teaching effectiveness.

    October 27, 2011
  77. john george said:

    Kathie- Having three daughters and my daughter-in-law teach in public schools, the common denominator in all their challenges are (were) parents who were either apathetic or antagonistic regarding their children. Two of my daughters are now teaching in college. Their common comment is that it is a lot easier to teach young people who are paying for their education rather than those who think they are entitled to it. My other daughter left teaching to stay at home with their daughter. My daughter-in-law is in the North Dakota school system. She thinks it is quite different from the Minnesota system, but the uninvolved parents are a problem everytwhere. All of them would


    a parent like you who engages the system motivated by the idea of teamwork.

    October 27, 2011
  78. Bruce Morlan said:

    Actually, my use of “tenured deadwood” was both inflammatory and antagonistic and I tentatively apologize to everyone for using such a term. I do, however, have serious concerns about how well we are able to measure outcomes and, even more concerns about how we can use those measurements to change the system(s). The evidence is clear that technology is neither a panacea nor a curse and that environment is a powerful predictor. We, as a nation of freepeople are torn between our desire to be free and our desire to manipulate people through various means to do our bidding, whether that bidding be “be good parents” or “use less energy“. The struggle for freedom is done in an environment of wishful thinking by all involved, and things like increasing spending per pupil or increasing the technology available to the teachers are value-neutral ways to seem to be doing something when the evidence is mixed at best about whether it is cost-effective to do so. But if the most cost-effective way to improve outcomes was found to be to remove 3yr-olds from their home cultures of ignorance and/or apathy towards education, who among us would favor that? It is not easy being free, even less so when you want others to be both free yet like the best of us.

    October 27, 2011
  79. john george said:

    You make some excellent points. What is the point at which we are striving to better ourselves slip into Hitler’s concept of an Arian Nation?

    October 27, 2011
  80. john george said:

    Paul Z.-
    Sorry, I did not separate out the comment in Bruce’s post to which I was refering-

    But if the most cost-effective way to improve outcomes was found to be to remove 3yr-olds from their home cultures of ignorance and/or apathy towards education, who among us would favor that?

    I also agree with this comment-

    We, as a nation of freepeople are torn between our desire to be free and our desire to manipulate people through various means to do our bidding, whether that bidding be “be good parents” or “use less energy“.

    I have heard this philosophy propounded in education literature. I refer to the concept as relying on “experts” for everything. I have heard the idea stated this way, and I paraphrase, that if these children could be removed from the home early enough in their life, then they would not be ruined by poor parenting. Aryan nation philosophy? You tell me?

    October 27, 2011
  81. john george said:

    Paul Z.-
    This is an interesting link giving the whole concept of an aryan (noble) race-
    Having a “noble” generation of children sounds like a good concept. The question is, “Who is going to teach them?” Their parents or the State?

    October 27, 2011
  82. Kathie Galotti said:

    Bruce, in 19.1 you suggest ( I think) that we need better measures of teacher performance. Earlier you cited some studies that suggest it can be done (iin fairness, it should be pointed out that many if not all of these studies investigated only elementary school teachers).

    I think that measurement of teacher quality is an urgent issue. As you’ve suggested earlier, good measurement can be done. I would argue it should be done. It’s probably got to be something multifaceted, and it’s probably going to take time and effort to develop.

    But, it’s NOT gonna get done if we all argue that good teaching isn’t something that can be measured.

    Some parts of the Northfield district really seem to go out of their way to protect the weak teachers among us. I point in particular to the high school.

    Take a look at the Annual Report on Curriculum, Instruction, and Student Achieveent, available here

    In particular, look at the goals set by each school. The high school includes the following language

    Goal: To improve student achievement.
    Progress: (Year 2 of a three-year goal.) This goal is designed to increase the percentage of students who remain on track for graduation and decrease the number of students who fail a class or more in a given year. The execution of this goal is embedded in our PLCs (collaborative teams). Teams of teachers meet weekly to review student progress, develop common formative assessment, and alter content delivery based on the data they gather in their PLCs. Each PLC has a SMART goal, the completion of which will be reviewed in the fall of 2011. NHS students continue to significantly outperform their state and national counterparts in standardized test across the disciplines.

    What the hell? What kind of progress report is this???

    Elementary schools have goals like “!Goal: All students will demonstrate measurable gains in reading fluency and comprehension.
    • On the 2011 MCA II reading assessment, 85.27% of 3rd grade students were proficient.
    • On the 2011 MCA II reading assessment, 84.31% of 4th grade students were proficient.
    • On the 2011 MCA II reading assessment, 96.11% of 5th grade students were proficient.”

    See the difference? The second (from Sibley Elementary–but the other two elementary schools have goals and progress reports) IS a SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. The first (high school) is a DUMB one (diffuse, unfocussed, masked, bullSH*T) one.

    Why was the NHS staff allowed to submit such drivel? Why did the Superintendent not call them out on it? Where was the school board??

    My general point (and I do have one): we know what to do to improve education. Some of those things involve measurement and feedback. We just aren’t willing to do the hard things to do it, because we don’t want to have uncomfortable conversations.

    October 27, 2011
  83. Curt Benson said:

    John George, I don’t understand how you’ve worked the concept of an Aryan Race into an otherwise rational discussion. And I really hope you somehow just didn’t realize that your link is from a Danish Holocaust denial site.

    Amongst other such bullshit, it says:

    “Today, as far as I can judge, Holocaust revisionism has reached its main objective in demonstrating that there is no valid internal or external piece of evidence for claiming that Hitler by means of gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau or elsewhere, murdered millions of Jews in cold blood. From whatever angle you look at it this claim is so absurd that it in itself becomes a most interesting problem how it can be that so many people for so long have believed in what we now safely can call the Holocaust myth. The Hitlerian gas chambers, like the alleged weapons of mass destruction of Irak´s former dictator, have now been assigned to the realm of myth. Or, if you wish, they are mere rumors, as Dr. Faurisson phrased it in a famous note in 1979. And without a weapon of mass murder, it follows that there can be no mass murder. Thus the Holocaust, in the sense of mass murder of Jews by means of gas chambers is, if you believe in logic, a mere myth.”

    Griff, it’s time for some moderation…

    October 27, 2011
  84. john george said:

    Thanks for the catch. I was trying to find some type of history of the whole concept of “aryan race”, and I didn’t read the article clear to the end. I repent in sackcloth and ashes! The whole analogy was bad on my part. The concept I was trying to get across is the whole idea of the state taking over the raising of our children. Back to the woodshed for me!

    October 27, 2011
  85. Curt Benson said:

    Thanks John.

    October 27, 2011
  86. john george said:

    Curt- You are most welcome!

    October 27, 2011
  87. Paul Zorn said:


    About 18.2.5, now some distance above, in which you made some observations that might have gotten lost when discussion wandered into the distant and unlikely weeds of Aryan supremacy.

    Concerning “tenured deadwood” … I wasn’t at all offended by the term, and wouldn’t deny that such problems exist. Nor would I deny that some school districts (like other institutions of all types) in some places have too many administrators, waste money on frills and fads, etc.

    These all strike me as not untrue but conventional and predictable complaints, like railing against waste and fraud in government, that always will and perhaps always should be raised in these contexts. A live-er question for me in a given context, such as a levy proposal, is whether these problems are actually rife right here and now. Even if so, it’s fair to ask how, if at all, votes on a school levy would address such problems — and whether voting yea or nay is the best strategy.

    I’m a bit unclear about your remaining points on freedom, government intervention, etc. Are you suggesting some link to the school levy?

    October 28, 2011
  88. No, I was waxing philosophical … I was hoping to get people to think beyond the sound bites that usually drive these sorts of dialogs and I was hoping to (re)focus the discussion on whether we really want to apply fixes to a system without even being able to prove what it was that broke it (assuming it is broken). I just don’t want us to prescribe amputation to cure a headache.

    October 28, 2011
  89. kiffi summa said:

    AH!……… once again, the “uncomfortable conversation” roadblock to progress.

    October 30, 2011
  90. john george said:

    Bruce- I suppose people have lost their heads over lesser things in the past.

    October 30, 2011
  91. Kathy Phillipsen said:

    This is exactly, EXACTLY, what I’ve been saying since the levy issues grew in the media and through school information over the last month. I’ve already paid state taxes. A portion went to education. State used it, hasn’t repaid it. So now I have to pay it, again in portion, to make up for the state defaulting on their good word.

    No. It feels like a double dip. Pay to my school district all you haven’t repaid, then make your payments on time, State of Minnesota, and leave the education funding alone. I’m willing to bet we would see a very different financial picture if they would.

    Take it to the polls, vote no, then take this to the State and make education funding exempt from borrowing against. If Minnesota prides itself on it’s education – and wants to continue doing so – then let the funding not be borrowed against again.

    November 1, 2011

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