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District 833 referendum: Questions to ponder

Liberty Ridge Elementary School teacher Angie Bemowski leads her fourth-grade class through a spelling exercise recently. District 833 is putting two levy questions and an $8 million bond on the Nov. 5 election ballot. The bond would be used to purchase land for a new elementary school and a middle school, in an attempt to alleviate space constraints at Liberty Ridge and other schools. (Bulletin photo by Scott Wente)

Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories examining the District 833 referendum. Look for a story on the land bond in the Oct. 30 edition.

Many education decisions to be made in the South Washington County Schools over the next several years will be determined by how voters answer two ballot questions next month.

School District 833 will ask voters on Nov. 5 to renew a pair of existing property tax levies, which administrators say would simply maintain current spending and program levels. District voters also will be asked to approve an influx of new money — increased property taxes — to maintain and enhance some school operations and make safety and technology improvements. The two levy measures are part of a three-question school referendum on the ballot.

“It’s not all about money,” Superintendent Keith Jacobus said during a recent presentation, “but we’re at a point now where we can’t continue to provide some services to kids without a little help.”

Question 1

Two existing operating levies generating about $4.6 million annually are set to expire.

The revenue from those renewed levies would amount to about $180 per pupil each year and is part of the district’s $175 million general fund, which covers teaching costs and other education expenses.

If Question 1 fails, administrators say the district would face $3.5 million in spending cuts for the next school year. There is no specific budget-cutting proposal, but a “budget matrix” the district has adopted to guide finance decisions suggests that spending cuts could affect a wide variety of services: increased class sizes at all grade levels; less staffing for special education and resources for student athletics and activities; cuts to student busing, including for choice programs; and fewer support staff, including nurses, paraprofessionals and mental health providers.

Approving Question 1 will not raise property taxes. If it fails taxpayers will see a drop in the school portion of their property tax payment. For instance, a home valued at $250,000 would see a property tax decrease of $212 annually, according to district estimates.

Question 2

Administrators say the additional $6.9 million annually from Question 2 would be targeted to four areas but the School Board would approve specific spending plans — and could make changes — each year for the levy’s 10-year duration.

Superintendent Keith Jacobus said the district has identified funding needs that exceed $6.9 million, but settled on that amount because it had the support of a majority of district residents who answered an independent survey about the levy.

The four areas that would see new annual spending are:

  • Staffing ($1.4 million) — The district proposes to add the equivalent of one additional licensed professional in each building, beginning next fall. That could include teachers, social workers, counselors or other licensed staff. Principals would suggest what position their buildings need most, and it could change from year to year.

“They know best on how to meet the needs of their population,” said Keith Ryskoski, assistant superintendent for secondary education.

  • Security upgrades at $1.5 million — Administrators want to make a number of school building security improvements over about a three- or four-year period and pay for them over the 10-year duration of the levy.

“Our goal would be to do something in every building early on,” said Mike Vogel, who handles district operations.

Six buildings —- Bailey, Grey Cloud, Middleton, Red Rock and Liberty Ridge elementary schools and Cottage Grove Middle School — have open main entries that don’t funnel visitors through an office. The district wants to redesign the entries so visitors must first enter the school office.

The district also wants to replace handles on all classroom doors so they can be locked from the inside without opening the door.

Another security improvement would involve either replacing tempered glass at classroom entries with laminated glass that won’t shatter or by applying a film on the glass surface. The glass would not be bulletproof, but the intent is to prevent someone from breaking glass to get into a building or classroom.

Schools also would add digital surveillance cameras, replacing analog cameras that have poorer image quality.

“It’s obsolete equipment,” Andrew Baldwin, the district technology director, said of current security cameras.

  • Technology infrastructure at $1.5 million — The district has developed a 10-year plan to replace, upgrade or add behind-the-scenes technology infrastructure that administrators say is needed both for educational instruction and for the district’s phone and communications systems and business operations. Those improvements or additions include hardware, digital switches, wireless Internet access points, upgraded servers — all what district Baldwin called “unglamorous but essential.”

While the School Board ultimately decides spending, district officials have been adamant that the technology infrastructure funding is not intended to fund the purchase of electronic devices, such as iPads, for student learning.

However, infrastructure upgrades are needed in part because of the increased use of a variety of electronic devices — from laptops to iPads, computers to cellphones — in school buildings.

  • District reserves at $2.5 million — The largest share of new revenue would fund existing school programs while maintaining a certain level of reserve funding. Those reserves have been tapped in past years as a way to avoid cutting classroom spending. The district’s desired level of reserve funds equals roughly one month’s worth of expenses, said Finance Director Aaron Bushberger. If Question 1 is rejected, Question 2 cannot pass either.
Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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