District wants testing, school land, data issues addressed
District 833 wants more local control in state education law, from when the school year can start to how tests are administered.
But South Washington County Schools also want lawmakers to step in and help growing districts like itself by requiring that developers set aside land for schools. It also wants the Legislature to scale back government data that can be requested by the public.
Those are among legislative priorities District 833 administrators announced during a meeting last week with lawmakers who represent areas of south Washington County.
Superintendent Keith Jacobus said schools appreciate increased education funding approved by lawmakers and the governor last year. Most of the district’s priorities this year are focused on education policy. It seeks more local authority on some measures and increased state action or involvement in others.
South Washington County Schools wants help from the state in addressing school building land acquisition in growing districts. Jacobus said housing developers “come in and do some wonderful work,” but in some cases a district competes with developers for land to build schools that are needed as a result of development.
“All of the cost of purchasing land falls on our taxpayers,” Jacobus said. (District 833 last fall sought $8 million from voters to buy land for new schools. The measure failed.) Jacobus suggested the state consider requiring developers who build in growth areas to set aside land for the local school district or provide funding to that district.
The idea does not appear to have traction.
Rep. JoAnn Ward, DFL-Woodbury, said she pursued that last year and was told the state would not mandate anything. Cities also don’t support it, she said, because it could make some areas less desirable to developers.
The district’s priorities also include maintaining a series of three standardized tests that culminate with the ACT exam used by many Midwest colleges and universities. Students in grades 8 and 10 take standardized tests that lead up to the ACT exam taken by most college-bound students. The district doesn’t want the state to switch to a different testing program for college and career readiness.
“It would be nice, given the college entrance requirements and ACT is the predominant screener, that they stick with that,” Tom LaBounty, who oversees testing for the district, said in an interview.
The district also wants the state to consider choosing test vendors that offer exams on mobile devices such as tablets or smartphones. That is not available with current assessments, and LaBounty said one of the biggest challenges for schools during testing is getting students in and out of computer labs where the exams are taken. Testing could take less time if exams were offered on mobile devices.
Another priority involves public access to data.
Jacobus said the district believes its information is transparent, but public requests should be limited to data that is of “general interest” to the public, because of the extensive staff workload created by some data requests.
“It’s just the cumbersome aspects of following the law to get things done but also keep the district moving,” Jacobus said.
Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, said it’s difficult to change the Data Practices Act. She said the district would have a better chance of making a change if the measure was backed by the Minnesota School Boards Association.
None of the lawmakers said whether they would support that measure.
The district also wants:
- Flexibility in when schools can start and end the year and in the amount of time students spend in class. Jacobus said the state requirement appears to be “a lack of trust” in local districts, when schools just want flexibility.
“We’re not looking for ways to water things down or get kids through quickly,” he said.
- More flexibility in how some state-approved levy revenue can be used. For instance, a health and safety levy cannot be used for building security improvements. Sieben said she thought she got that changed last year but if it didn’t get passed she would work on it this year.
- More multicultural curriculum to help close the academic achievement gap, though Jacobus said the district did not have specific examples in mind.
- Support for a package of facilities-related proposals from a state working group, including more flexibility in how a district can use its lease levy.
- Clarity from state lawmakers on what is expected of districts in new anti-bullying legislation.