School District levy referenda: questions, issues for upcoming podcast

IMG_3921_cropped.JPGWe’ve got School Board Chair Kari Nelson on our show next week. I attended (see photos and audio) the district’s forum on earlier this week to try to get better informed about the issues. (They’re repeating the forum next Monday Oct. 2, 7 p.m. at the High School Auditorium.) Below are some of the issues I hope we address with Kari on the podcast.

If you have questions or comments you’d like us to consider for the show, attach a comment to this blog entry, send us a comment using our Contact Us page, or submit an audio comment.

  1. The debt
    levytn.pngSupt. Chris Richardson frequently cites the state legislature’s zero percent increases in the per pupil alotment formula during the 02-04 sessions as the reasons for the district’s descending into deep debt… at a time when costs for special ed, fuel and healthcare were increasing substantially.

    The district literature on the referenda, as well as Richardson’s interviews in the Northfield News, explains that the Northfield School Board at the time made the decision to spend down its reserves rather than make cuts. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the legislature is painted as the villain. But every district in the state has been hit with the same financial arrows as Northfield, yet only a few have landed in statutory debt like Northfield has. And of course, the state was deep in debt during those post-9/11 years.

    But there are other factors that aren’t talked much about. Among them:

    A) the district settled the teachers’ contract for an overall two-year compensation increase of almost 10% (Richardson said 9% at the forum but I think it was actually 9.86%) at a time when the state average settlement was closer to 8%.

    B) student enrollment had stagnated or even declined during those years but overall staff size — the number of FTEs — increased. Significantly increased? I don’t have the raw numbers but hopefully will get them.

    I don’t fault the teachers for compensation increase during those years. I used to be a member of the teachers’ union when I was a social worker for the Faribault schools and I think our society generally underpays its teachers and its social workers. But the district didn’t have the money to pay for a 9.86% increase and it reaped the consequences.

  2. Rejection of Q-Comp
    I started an ISSUES list discussion of Q-Comp last December and blogged the results of the teacher’s rejection of the plan, 118 no; 61 yes, a 63% turnout. Supt. Chris Richardson responded on the list, as he did at the forum this week.

    But I’m still grumpy about this, since it was $750,000 in the teachers’ pockets for a well-conceived plan (and potetially another $750K the following year). $1.5 million is no small change. Richardson made the point that this money has no relationship to the operating levy referendum and that’s true to an extent. My point is that future teacher contract compensation settlements WILL BE PAID FOR by operating levy money.

    davidbly96w-thumb.jpgQ-Comp is not only about more compensation for teachers. Its intent to provide the money in exchange for a more focused effort on student success. Normally that just means higher test scores — something that I’ve got reservations about when pursued with a vengeance — but the Northfield plan, drafted by a team of teachers led by David Bly, took a much more intelligent and flexible approach to how “success” was to be defined.

    As a citizen, it seems lousy to me to have teachers rejecting compensation cash from the state but wanting more compensation cash from local taxpayers. And I’m not faulting the teachers 100% for their decision. There’s likely a work-environment factor here, that the teachers aren’t feeling treated right. That’s partially an administration responsibility, of course, to make sure its staff feels great about their working conditions and their employer.

  3. Not dealing with problem teachers
    Also on the ISSUES list, back in January (interspersed in the Q-Comp discussion), Kathie Galotti (a Northfield parent and college professor) spurred a discussion about how the district seems to have a pattern of not dealing with teachers (a tiny few, to be sure) who are problem employees. Supt. Chris Richardson responded on the list but it’s been nine months since and my sources tell me that nothing’s been done.

    I privately (now publicly) supported the district’s decision to not renew the sponsorhip of the Village School, even though I’ve been a champion of charter schools since the beginning. But it irks me that the Superintendent and the School Board haven’t taken on the admittedly tough task of intervening with those few bad apples.

  4. Property assets
    oldmiddleschool.JPGI applaud the School Board for negotiating a deal with Carleton College to buy the old Middle School for $452,000. Yes, the land is worth more than that but that building has, um, expensive problems.

    I’m not as happy that the Board sold Memorial Field to the City of Northfield for $1. One dollar. Yes, it’s a public asset that stays a public asset. But the District needs cash for capital expenses (referendum #2 on the ballot) and so it’s hard to understand why they didn’t drive a harder bargain. I’ve heard some grumbling about this from citizens who don’t live within the City of Northfield but do live within the school district boundaries.

IMG_3930.JPGI expect that I’ll vote YES on both referenda — the good things happening in the district’s schools far outweigh the problems I’ve raised. A candid discussion of these problems could turn me from lukewarm to a more active supporter.

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  1. Larry DeBoer said:

    It is rare to find basic US citizens who are against good education, good schools and continuing enhancement of programs. It is even rarer to find Northfielders who are negative on those subjects.

    But, we want everything in Northfield. We want a larger library, we want a new swimming pool, we want a new YMCA, we want improved streets, we want clean water, we want to preserve the Cannon River, we want a new theater, we want bike trails and hopefully we want new businesses to bring in more jobs.

    The want list is much greater than the taxation base. The City Council just approved a budget that will increase the property tax levy by 12.5% over the 2006 amount.

    Inflation is not increasing by that amount. Most incomes are not increasing by that amount, nor the amount the school district is proposing. Some things have to be put in proper priority over a much longer time frame. I cannot support the school levy, nor the city budget increase, until I can see evidence that management has seriously studied more options.

    September 29, 2006
  2. Griff Wigley said:

    Hi Larry, thanks for weighing in… and for going public with your position against the referenda. It’s courageous in this town.

    Your wish-list is a little misleading, though, since the YMCA and new theater won’t likely involve public money. And to my knowledge, there’s no local tax assessment of citizens for anything related to the bike trail or Cannon River.

    But I think you can make your point without those and just use the local property tax increase for the city, the swimming pool, and now the school referenda.

    September 29, 2006
  3. Larry DeBoer said:

    The point that I am trying to make is there is a limited amount of money for citizens to spend. Each of the special interest groups have a fund raising effort. When our funds are consumed by taxes little is left over for the various other well meaning “wants” of our community.

    October 1, 2006
  4. I worked as an educational psychologist for 11 years in major metropolitan districts & Faribault.

    I NEVER thought I would vote against any funding for schools…but I am now. My reasons are similar to Larry DeBoer’s and Griff’s concerns.

    I began a service busines (Care Tenders) almost 8 years ago to address transportation and home support needs. I built a building as there was no building in Northfield that accommodated the needs the business had. I was told by Ray Cox, the builder, that taxes would be approximately $4,000 per year; similar to his. SURPRISE!

    Every year they have increased and this year are over $11,000. With the figures given out in the ‘”Levy Guide” they will increase $810. A shuttle ride to MSP is approximately $43…or 287 shuttle rides just to pay property taxes. I don’t think so. I have spoken with city council members, the assessor, and our elected representatives. They all say…”Yes, commercial property taxes are terrible but there is no ‘public will’ to do anything about them”. But I can do something …vote no. I look at the 2 palatial new schools.

    I agree with Kathy Galotti; my daughters had problems with a particular teacher and nothing has ever been done about i.

    Consultants pitch a 9 million dollar library. I’m certain we could build a new pool for less than 2.4 million. I agree with Larry, “we want everything in Northfield”.

    I told Dr. Kyte years ago that after my experience in Burnsville & Edina schools, the only levy I will support is greatly reduced class size. If classes are reduced we won’t need all these “special services”. 70.2% of Northfield’s budget is spent on classroom instruction…do we think that is good?? We ought to spend 90% or more.

    There is a limit to the fare I can charge and stay in business. It is time for the city council, the school board, the county commissioners to recognize that they can’t always come to the pubic for more. Sometimes, we don;t have it.

    October 1, 2006
  5. Griff Wigley said:

    Hi Barbara, good to have your comments.

    Funny you should mention class size. I’m typing this at a coffeehouse on Monday morning and friend who I’d not seen for a while came in. When I asked him what his wife was up to, he said “Homeschooling our son. We pulled him out of Bridgewater Elementary because class size was over 30.”

    I’m not sure to what extent reducing class size would reduce the need for Special Ed services, though. Do you have examples or can you point to research where this has been done successfully?

    October 2, 2006
  6. Barbara Gentling said:

    To respond to Griff’s question about reduced class size. There’s much research on the effects of small classes. A few years ago MN. funded these initiatives in grades K-2 and
    I believe the goal was 18 students per class. My point is that small class size (18-20 max.) allows teachers to know their students strengths and weaknesses and work with them appropriately. Special education instruction is basically using alternative (sometimes even the
    same teaching methods) at a different pace or with modified materials. The last few years I worked in the school the trend was for special education teachers to go INTO regular education classrooms to
    support classroom instruction for
    children experiencing difficulty learning with traditional methods. This is a pendulum issue…some years it swings far one way (i.e. pull the children out of regular classrooms…a few years later put them all back in with supports).
    My point is that 18-20 students
    in a classroom allows a “good” teacher to work with all children
    appropriately. Some children may
    need numerous additional supports but they will receive a much more “normal” educational experience
    in a regular education classroom.
    (I apologize for all this special
    education language). I haven’t stayed up with educational journals but I’m certain this an issue that has been heavily studied.

    One of the significant problems I saw in educational settings was “building the bureaucracy”…every time the state or federal government gave an “unfunded mandate” people were hired to deal with it. Burnsville
    and Edina schools had so many people in the administrative office a staff person didn’t know where to go. And
    salaries for these “administrators”
    were in the 80’s, 90’s, over 100,000 dollars. Not bad if the district had 3-4 administrators…but 23? 29?
    And what do all these people do? Here we go back to “rent seeking”which I found very helpful. It explains much of my frustration with lawyers, developers, bankers, and of course politicians. Ah, another day.

    October 5, 2006
  7. Paul Zorn said:

    I intend (like Griff, I believe) to vote for the school levy. I’m sympathetic to concerns about tax levels, such as those Barbara Gentling mentions. Business property taxes do seem high.

    But IMO the proper way to address these concerns is to review the big picture, at the state level, of how taxes are raised and spent, the appropriate balance among types of taxes (income, property, sales, …), which tax investments are wise and which are frills, what infrastructure we want for ourselves and our kids, etc. Taking out one’s frustrations on the schools — and by extension the kids — makes little sense to me.

    Like Barbara, I’d strongly prefer smaller classes and I’m willing to help pay for them. (Whether they’d significantly reduce the need for special ed is less clear to me, but that’s worth trying to find out.)

    But let’s be clear: reducing class sizes to something like 18 is an expensive proposition. So help me understand: can lower taxes really coexist with smaller classes?

    October 5, 2006