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In levy referendum District 622 asks for $630 a student

It's another do-over for the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale school district, which has renewed but not increased its operating levy during the past 14 years.

In a November ballot referendum, District 622 is asking voters for an operating levy increase of $630 a student.

"Normally they recommend not running a levy during a Presidential election year," Superintendent Christine Osorio said. "There's so much more to try to cut through to get your message out there."

But the money is needed to avoid millions of dollars of budget cuts.

And this time, the District 622 School Board and administration learned from the last failed referendum, officials said. A series of informational meetings, listening sessions and a constituent survey compelled the district to simplify its request to one question and reduce the cost of its request by almost one-third.

Should the referendum pass, the new money would increase each year, annually adjusted for inflation and pay for maintaining existing academic programs, supporting struggling learners, improving student and school safety, and expanding accelerated learning opportunities, district officials said.

If the referendum succeeds, the total operating levy will be increased to $1,563 a student. A successful vote would raise District 622 out of 20th place among Twin Cities districts when it comes to operating levy. Even with an increase, District 622's total operating levy would remain below the metro average.

"We're already the lowest district in the metro area, and we can't stay there," Osorio said.

Responsible spending

Voters want the district to be responsible with its money, to not be wasteful, and to cut back when possible, Osorio said. "We're really looking to save money."

Teachers settled their contracts at no salary increase, a short-term solution, Osorio said.

Annual external audits have been complimentary, self-insurance premiums are down, and the district refinanced bonds to the tune of millions of dollars saved.

The district is managing its money well, it just doesn't have enough to keep up with inflation and the cost of doing business, Osorio said.

In the past 10 years, District 622 balanced its budget by cutting almost $34 million, including cuts of 85 teaching positions in 2015.

Should the ballot referendum fail, another $3.5 million in cuts would be necessary in 2017-18. The district might need to increase class sizes, cut staff and programs for struggling learners, reduce support for academic and behavior interventions, offer fewer secondary-school electives, wait to invest in updated classroom technology, reduce busing for middle school activities, and increase walking distance for students, including elementary students.

A small increase from taxpayers would go a long way, Osorio said. "We want to stop the cutting now."

What you pay

The owner of a $190,000 house, the average-priced house in District 622, would pay an increase of $187. Osorio emphasizes that the request is less than $16 a month.

In 2017, depending on the estimated market value of your home, you would pay tax increases of:

• $98 for a $100,000 home;

• $196 for a $200,000 home;

• $295 for a $300,000 home;

• $393 for a $400,000 home;

• or $491 for a $500,000 home.

What you get

If the referendum passes, enrichment programs like Tartan High School's popular high school curriculum College in the Schools and accelerated math in elementary school would be expanded.

"We want all kids to have grade-skipping opportunities in math," Osorio said.

There would be money for security camera systems that provide additional connection to law enforcement, as well as mental health and anti-bullying programs, Osorio said, and for an increase in school safety by continuing to fund door greeters at every site.

"We want to be able to maintain that," Osorio said of the staffed entrances, "but it's on the chopping block every year."

Struggling students would get help they need, like direct instruction, interventions, and small groups for math, reading and behavior.

Teachers would continue to have support and training.

The district could maintain some important programs like a middle school activities bus and elementary school behavior supports.

Class sizes could be maintained throughout the district, but specifically curtailed at Skyview Elementary.

And Osorio added: "It really does help property values stay high when schools are well funded."

Past levies

2002 was the last year in which voters supported an increase in operating levy.

In 2011, the district renewed its $833 a student operating levy referendum.

In 2015, a two-question referendum failed. The district requested $900 a student, as well as a $3 million technology levy.

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8.

For more information, call 651-748-7629, send an email to levy@isd622.org, or go to isd622.org/levy2016.

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