Saint Paul asks voters for school moneyby Marisa Helms, Minnesota Public Radio
Sixty-eight Minnesota school districts are asking voters this election to approve property tax increases to fund school operating costs. The St. Paul schools current levy referendum is expiring next summer. So, the district board is asking taxpayers to pay more than $20 million a year for six years to avoid cutting school programs. Supporters say St. Paul's referendum funding is lagging other metro area districts. Opponents say the district is still asking for too much.
St. Paul, Minn. — If St. Paul voters say yes to the referendum, it would amount to $593 per pupil; a jump of almost 80 percent from the current level. That would put the district ahead of Minneapolis, but behind the other six largest metro area districts.
The referendum campaign touts the district's record of improvement. The message goes out through door knocking, direct mail to voters, and media ads.
The district is seeking $30 million a year for the next six years. The district is counting on the state for one quarter of that, and on city property taxpayers for the rest. For the owner of a median priced home in St. Paul, that amounts to about an $85 increase over what they're paying now.
Of the 338 school districts in Minnesota, 88 percent rely on operating levy referenda. This November, some districts will ask taxpayers for money to pay for dramatic increases in referendum funding. For example, the Stillwater district wants to spend $1,400 per pupil, a 75-percent increase.
Supporters say if the St. Paul referendum fails, programs that help kids succeed won't survive.
At Nokomis Montessori School, teacher Ione Bullard is leading a group of about two dozen four-year-olds through some Halloween variations on some old pre-school standards.
Nearly 30 St. Paul schools offer programs like this to better prepare 4 year-olds for kindergarten. About a thousand children are enrolled in the programs.
St. Paul School Board Chair Elona Street-Stewart says research is clear that early childhood education provides a lifelong benefit for students. She says the current programs for four-year-olds are funded through expiring grant money, and so those programs would be cut if the referendum doesn't go through.
"When they're gone, they're gone," she says. "We will not be able to offer those early childhood programs to our families. With the referendum, what we'll be able to do is continue those four-year programs, we'll continue to look at all-day kindergarten across the district."
Street-Stewart says funding for public education in the state over the past several years has not kept up with rising costs.
"Any money is worth it for schools," says Andy Steiner-Manning, a St. Paul resident who supports the levy referendum.
Steiner-Manning has a six-year-old attending public school and a two-year-old whom she plans to send to public school. She says she worries about the long term consequences of not supporting the referendum.
"If kids aren't getting through school, aren't graduating from high school, aren't prepared to go to college, we're going to be in trouble," Steiner-Manning says. "We have this aging baby-boomer population and who's going to be there to be their doctors, to be their nurses, whatever needs to happen, we need to support the kids that are coming up to make the world good for us when we're older too."
For the district's high school students, referendum supporters say the additional dollars will pay for necessities like maintaining class sizes, and preparing students for college, especially in math and science. The emphasis on the youngest and eldest students allows the district to focus resources on what Superintendent Meria Carstarphen calls the "bookends of learning."
Carstarphen, who has been on the job less than three months, says taxpayers should support the referendum because the district is making continuous improvements and has model programs. She says the referendum would help her make the St. Paul Public Schools the country's premier large urban school district.
"I will take it to the next level," Carstarphen says. "No doubt, I will take it to the next level. We will talk more about accountability, we will set targets and benchmarks. We will map out our goals and strategies for every year down to the percentage gain points that need to happen."
Despite Carstarphen's pledge to accountability, some St. Paul residents aren't buying it.
"I've had 22 years with this district. Of course I don't trust them," says referendum foe Steven Scholl.
Scholl has had kids in the district since 1984. He says he supports public education, but won't vote for the referendum because he thinks the school board will manage the money in ways he doesn't like.
"They put out the 'mom and apple pie' programs that everyone will feel good about," Scholl says. And 'oh, we have to support this.' But they hide in the rest of the budget the programs where they haven't been accountable."
Scholl points to the district's recent controversial decision to require school bus companies to provide drivers paid sick leave. The rationale for the requirement was to keep drivers who are ill from spreading germs to kids. But the cost for bus service wound up at $850,000 more than the district had budgeted. District officials say it's not clear the sick leave requirement is to blame for all of the extra $850,000.
Critics, like Peter Boo, also say they oppose the levy increase because county and city property taxes are increasing next year, too.
"I just think we have a chance now to have a vote on at least one of those three between the county, the city and the schools," says Boo. "The taxes will just continue to increase if nobody resists them. We've got the fox guarding the chicken coop."
This is the third time since 2000 that the St. Paul School District has brought a levy referendum to voters. Opposition was more organized during the previous campaigns with ads and lawn signs. But this time around the opposition is much less visible.
And the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, usually a critic of higher taxes, is not taking a position on the vote. The Chamber supported the 2000 referendum and opposed the one in 2002.
- Morning Edition, 10/30/2006, 6:52 a.m.