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District seeks flexibility, freedom at Legislature

Woodbury lawmakers (from left) Sen. Susan Kent, Rep. Kelly Fenton and Rep. JoAnn Ward take part in a workshop with School District 833 officials to discuss education issues at the Legislature. (Bulletin photo by Scott Wente)

School District 833’s legislative wish list includes more state funding, flexibility with the academic calendar and school board control over referendum renewal decisions.

Those are among seven priorities South Washington County Schools pitched to area lawmakers at a recent meeting to discuss education topics at the 2015 legislative session.

An increase in basic state aid is the district’s top priority. While the Legislature has bumped up per-pupil funding in recent years, the increases have not kept pace with inflation, Superintendent Keith Jacobus said. State aid comprises the largest share of funding that supports classroom instruction.

Per-pupil funding allows districts flexibility in how it is used, Jacobus said. There are additional state funds targeted to specific programs that cannot be used for other purposes, even if the district can provide the programs for less money than it receives for those uses, he said.

“The greatest flexibility for us and the best thing for us as we offer new programs and services and we continue to deal with a deficit budget,” Jacobus explained, “is to have it on the base where we have some flexibility.”

Levy authority

While it is seeking more state revenue, District 833 also asked lawmakers to consider changing law to give school boards authority to renew operating levies themselves rather than through voter approval. The request only pertains to levy renewals, not a new referendum that would increase property taxes.

School Board Chairman Ron Kath said during the Jan. 8 discussion that the board “certainly” would seek community input before renewing a referendum, but the district is just asking for flexibility.

District 833 has had instances where a relative small operating referendum was renewed with overwhelming voter support but the district still had to pay to hold the election, Kath said. An election could cost $20,000.

The district has a number of levies spread out with different expiration years, and being on the ballot often can lead to “voter fatigue” and confusion, Jacobus added.

“If we had the ability to renew something voters approve, even if there is a sunset of one or two renewals, it would really help us,” he said.

Lawmakers said the proposal deserves more discussion.

Some districts really want the ability to renew without a public vote, said Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury.

“It’s complicated because we talk about local control and this is sort of ultimate local control and there is accountability to voters, but then there’s some real concern that we’re handing over that authority,” said Kent, who serves on the Senate education committee.

Rep. Dan Schoen DFL-St. Paul Park, said he would be open to giving school districts that authority. It could save money by not requiring as many elections, and school board members are accountable to the public through their own elections.

“The same people that will typically argue (for) local control will argue against this because they don’t want their taxes raised no matter what,” Schoen said of opposition to letting districts renew an operating levy without going to the voters.

Calendar flexibility

The district also would like state flexibility to consider a nontraditional school calendar.

Granting local control over the school calendar could allow for more effective instruction for students who need extra help, administrators said, though they stressed there are no plans to seek an alternative school calendar.

Jacobus stressed that District 833 is just seeking the flexibility, even to just consider a pilot program at a school or two. He offered the example of having students attend school with fewer lengthy breaks. Blocks of class time lasting several weeks or longer could be broken up by breaks of a couple of weeks, for instance. A summer vacation would be shorter than prescribed in the traditional calendar.

There could be academic benefits to an alternative calendar, Jacobus and other said. “Short-term interventions” with academically struggling students could be done more timely, rather than waiting until summer for an extended intervention that may not be as effective.

State law sets academic calendar parameters for most public school districts, establishing the traditional summer break between school years and requiring a post-Labor Day start.

District 833 is beginning to look at ways to boost struggling student achievement rates at Crestview Elementary School, which saw standardized scores drop last year to a level that triggered state intervention.

As part of that intervention, administrators are looking at classroom alternatives that allow for more learning time without long breaks, said Assistant Superintendent Julie Nielsen. However, Nielsen said in an interview that administrators are not yet discussing potential solutions, including a different academic calendar, for Crestview.

The flexible calendar idea simply originated through district discussions about its long-term space needs, Nielsen said.

The district’s other legislative priorities are greater flexibility in how it uses state funding; expanded use of a lease levy for building remodeling and safety and security enhancements; additional funding for special education; and changing a policy used to determine how much funding a district receives.

Some of the 2015 priorities also appeared on the district’s legislative wish list last year.

One request last year that was left off of this year’s list was a request to change state laws that could have restricted access to some public data. At the time, the district said some data requests had created extensive workloads for some staff.

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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