Updated Candidate Profiles

Several readers suggested that we  point out that we are continually updating candidate profiles because the changes are often subtle, e.g. a link to a new letter of support or piece of literature.  We have been making changes in batches, every couple days.   We have uploaded everything that candidates have provided, and linked to everything they requested we link to.  We have also linked to all information provided to us by readers of this website, copies of literature we have received, and anything else we have been able to find ourselves.  We regret that this means we are probably missing some letters to the editor in support of candidates because we have not been able to find everything online that was in print, particularly in the Bulletins.  Candidates continue to be invited to send us copies of letters of support from print media, and we will upload and link to them.  It continues to be our goal that people are able to make an informed vote, by being able to find everything provided from various media sources about the candidates (Woodbury and South Washington County Bulletins, Woodbury Patch, Pioneer Press, and the South Washington County Telecommunications Network), as well as answers to questions we posed to candidates.

Netflix or a Strong Public Education

channel surfingImagine you went into your boss for your annual review and when you got to the money part you learned that your increase from previous years is about to expire and you will be back to your salary from years before. “Hey!” you yell in outrage, “I have been busting my bupkiss – I want my increase back and more. Everything costs more these days, how do you expect me to live?”

Now you know what School Districts face every time a referendum comes up for renewal. Add in changes to the levy process to equalize property taxation between the haves (lots of commercial property at higher rates) and the have nots (more residential property at lower rates) and you’ll need a masters in governmental accounting to figure out what the Minnesota Legislature did this spring.

But the bottom line is always what comes out of YOUR pocket so let’s get to the main attraction. The district put together a tax impact statement. If you own a home valued at $250,000, the impact of the changes to the levy process and the expiration of the two old referendums (side note – it is a lot cheaper to renew two in one year then to renew one each year for two years) will take $18 off your monthly taxes. That is enough for a new subscription to Netflix and quality family time.

Now comes the pitch – what else could I do with the money? Since I certainly do not want my education “salary” to go back to old spending levels, I would renew. So, YES to question 1 and $7 goes back to the district and I am down to a streaming only Netflix subscription. Then I look at question 2. This is the true additional money being requested. There are four areas of spending – first: better safety in the event that the unthinkable, unMinnesotan thing happens here. Second: more invisible wires to accommodate the gizmos that are commonplace, must-haves so our children can cyber-learn (ok – I am old, old, old!). Third: putting more staff in the buildings which is always a good thing. Then finally, fourth: keeping up with current costs and leaving a little wiggle room in the budget for future growth. That would eliminate the Netflix and I would have to pay an additional $5 per month.

We live in a fast changing society, safety and technology are not things we can compromise or control. I can moan all I like but it won’t stop “progress”. But the last two items, I understand and say YES – they are our responsibility. Education should be a constant, quality experience. Without a safety net for poor economic years, legislative craziness or catastrophic expense events, the number of kids per classroom will be the fallback cut. More kids per rooms in lean times, less in good times. It has to be because roughly 80% of the district budget relates to inclassroom support by warm bodies. The best place to learn is the smallest environment possible. I also believe that District 833 has done an outstanding job in balancing the current and future needs of the staff and students. We can attract young and talented professionals who are interested in receiving a pension when they retire – our pension fund actually has enough money in it. That is something that only a very few districts can say. We have a policy that gives a range of how much money we need as a safety cushion. We are coming to the bottom of that range which means we need to cut more spending or raise more revenue. The new money that has come from the State Legislature each year has been woefully behind the rate of inflation – several years saw no increases.

That 3rd question is about buying land for a new building should we outgrow what we have. My twins will graduate this year but I can say YES and invest another $1 in my friends and neighbors children.

This year the Legislature did one thing differently – they did cut property tax rates ($18 on your $250,000 home) and left it up to you to make the decision on what to do with it. Me? There probably wasn’t much on Netflix we would all agree to watch anyway.

Photo credit:  © Andrew Taylor | Dreamstime Stock Photos


School Board Candidates

With 17 school board candidates, “Who should I vote for?” is a common question in the community these days.  Bits of information have appeared in the Woodbury Bulletin, and more will be coming.  The Pioneer Press will have coverage.  There are videos being taped for one of the cable channels.  It is our goal to be a resource for the community, a hub of information about the candidates, so that you can reach your own decisions. To that end, we have several people watching for and gathering information in the media and we will add it as we see it to each candidate’s page.  At present many are mostly blank pages, but that should change soon.

But since some of the questions we were receiving had not yet been asked in the media, we decided to provide our own list of questions to the candidates.  It is our intention to post their responses exactly as we receive them, and then we will add links to their videos, websites, etc as they become available.  Here were the questions.

  • Why are you running for the South Washington County School Board?
  • What things do you see in District 833 schools and administration that you would like to see continue?
  • What things do you see that would you like to change?
  • Do you volunteer today in District 833, and if so, how?
  • How else do you volunteer and give back to our community?
  • Do you have school age children, and if so are they in District 833 schools.  If you have school age children and they are not in District 833 schools, why not?
  • Do you support the three referendum questions, and if so what are you personally doing to see them pass?
  • Do you support choice programs like IB, Spanish Immersion, and Gateway?
  • Anything you’d like to add?

Other resources

The Truth about the “Increase” in the Travel Budget

speedometerI’m the sort of person that always researches everything, to a degree that my family often finds annoying.  So, I had to ask why when I read a headline in a blog recently that said, “In March, District 833 voted on a Budget that increases walking distances for middle and high school students to save $169,000/year, while increasing their travel expenditures by almost $200k – for a total of $730k+/year.”  As hard as the district is working to cut expenses, I knew they wouldn’t just increase things willy-nilly, so I called several people around the district to understand why our travel expenditures seemed to have increased.

First thing to know, every dollar spent on travel, was planned and budgeted money.

Second, the way I think about it, money spent on travel this last year largely falls in one of three categories:

  1. Money for AVID training
  2. Staff development dollars given to schools and departments
  3. Discretionary budgets given to schools and departments

So let’s tackle AVID first.  A significant portion of the additional travel dollars spent this year was to roll out the AVID program to four more elementary schools.  AVID is a great program, but they are a stickler for training, which is what makes the program great.  To participate, we have to train teachers, and that training is out of state.  We planned for this and budgeted for this training as part of the roll-out.  The AVID program is funded from integration dollars, so these aren’t dollars that would be available for transportation anyhow.

Staff development dollars come from the state and must be used for staff development (again, cannot be used for transportation).  Each school gets some of these dollars, and travel expenses can be covered as a part of staff development.

Each school gets a certain amount of money as part of their discretionary budget.  This covers a ton of stuff that makes the school run, everything from supplies, to departmental expenses, e.g. consumables for science classes or music for music classes, to printing, and it can also cover travel and many other things.  At the beginning of each year, each school estimates for the overall district budget, how they will allocate their money.  But they are free to change that allocation.  If they learn that a teacher with specialized training is leaving, they may need to scrimp on printing in order to send a teacher to IB training or AP training.   So it’s important to understand that while they might spend more on travel than what they anticipated at the beginning of the year, they are not going over budget.  They are just reallocating, or changing how they spend their money, just like I might scrimp on grocery money to cover a medical bill, in my budget at home.  The following year, they might not spend their money in the same way, depending on the needs of the school.  If you spend much time in the schools, you will know there’s never enough to go around.

There’s one other thing I think is important to know.  When the fiscal year closes the end of June, we will probably have spent about 25-27% of our travel budget on out-of-state travel, much of it on the AVID training.  Another 25% will be spent on reimbursement of mileage for district employees driving in the course of their work, e.g. athletic directors required to attend certain events, teachers who split their time between buildings, etc.  The remaining approximately amount was spent on in state training.

The last thing I want to raise is this.  I think most parents in this district want a world class education for their kids.  Creating a world class education requires our administration and teachers to be exposed to ideas outside of our district, the metro, and MN.  I am told that many of our principals have never been to a professional conference, because spending the money on themselves takes away money from staff development for others in their building.  I would never have become the software developer I am without opportunities to learn from my peers around the world at professional conferences.   Not permitting out-of-state travel is an idea that has floated through the school board.  I frankly believe this would do our district a disservice.  I hope that we will consider spending some of our travel dollars each year to send some of our teachers and administrators to learn from those outside of our great state of Minnesota.  And I for one, would like to see the district require that some of a school’s staff development dollars be required to be spent on building administrators.  We have wonderful teachers and administrators, but they all need the opportunity for great professional development beyond their college years in order to provide a world class education to our children.

District Administration Funding – How Lean Are We?

Earlier this year, District 833 chose what was dubbed the “Hybrid Budget Option” to reduce 2 million dollars from the district budget.  This included two cuts that have been widely criticized, increased walking distances, and a slight increase in overall staffing ratios in the classroom.  The implication has been that the district should have chosen instead to decrease district support services to the minimum acceptable level, along with operations and maintenance, and presumably also with cuts to either capital or school support services, since that would have been necessary in order not to cut transportation or classroom teachers.

To be clear, the Hybrid Budget Option, did significantly cut an already VERY LEAN district administration budget, to just barely above what the district and community together deemed the minimum acceptable level in the service matrix.  Building operations and maintenance, currently classified as “marginal but falling behind” in several areas, maintained the current level of funding. Capital, currently classified as “unable to keep pace with curricular resource needs” maintained its current level of funding.  School support services, ranked a little higher in the service matrix, maintained its current level of funding.  It’s worth noting that security, currently a hot button topic nationwide and in the district, is a part of school support services.  I encourage you to look at the Hybrid Budget Option on the district website as it is the source document for this information, to draw your own conclusions.  The levels of the service matrix were put together by district personnel with a series of community meetings (I regret that the one I attended, while widely advertised, was very poorly attended by the public.)

District 833 compares itself with 48 schools in the metro area.  At the end of the 2011-2012 school year (data for 2012-2013 will not be available until after the end of the fiscal year June 30th), of those 48 metro districts, we were 45th in terms of our spending on District Level Administration, and it comprised 2.5% of our budget.  The Hybrid Budget Option includes cuts of four to five additional full time positions in district administration.  We won’t know until the end of 2013-14 where this places us relative to the other districts in terms of our spending, but one can only imagine that with the positions being cut we are likely to be 46th to 48th in terms of our spending on district administration.

Our administration and school board have done very well with a very low level of district administration funding.  But if we are to be real, there is NO MORE ROOM to cut our administration funding.   We cannot have one of the best districts in the metro area while having  one of the lowest levels of funding for district administration.  Not only is there no more room to cut, in coming years we will have to find some way to increase our funding for district administration to maintain our current levels of service to schools, parents, students, and the community.

As a community, would we be happy with if our district ranked 45th out of 48 metro districts in terms of academic performance?  I feel confident saying we would not.  Many of us moved here for the strength of our school district, its affect on property values, the ease with which we sell our houses, and its impact on the lives of those of us with children.  I believe we need to think twice before suggesting that we can afford any more cuts in district administration.