Levy forum produces good questions and answers

November 5, 2007

Answers given to ‘What about that coach bus?’ and ‘Where will the $$$ go?’

By Kristen Miller
Staff Writer

Last Monday, voters in the Dassel-Cokato School District had a chance to bring questions and concerns to the school board and its administration before heading to the polls Tuesday, Nov. 6.

The purpose of the forum was to give everyone a chance to ask questions and be fully prepared to cast a vote. It was sponsored by DC’s PTA, the levy committee, and Community Education.

“As a democracy, we have the right to make our own decisions, but often times, they are uninformed decisions,” said Mari Pokornowski, member of the DC PTA, following the forum.

This was an opportunity to become better informed before the vote Tuesday, she added.

The public wants to know...

Audience members were able to ask questions anonymously to the panel, which consisted of board members and administration including Superintendent Jeff Powers, board members Richard Tormanen, Kevin Dahlman and Kevin Bjork; Cokato Elementary Principal Lorene Force, and Activities/Community Education Director Perry Thinesen.

A question was asked of the effect a “no” vote would have on the district.

Dahlman explained that the district is out of “soft” cuts and with 80 percent of the budget going to labor, the cuts will be more personal, painful, and directly impact education.

Tormanen added to the response that not only cuts are possible, but also revenue could be raised for activity fees.

Powers continued by highlighting the four areas that would be impacted, which the board outlined during levy discussions. They are, reduce offerings at the high school, continue to struggle with class sizes, fewer services for students at the top and bottom of the learning scale, and activities.

Another question asked was if the levy passed, would administrative positions eliminated last year be reinstated?

“It is not likely at this time,” Dahlman said. As the district continues to grow at the current rate, this may have to be looked at further down the road. But as for now, this is not on the immediate plan, he added.

Along with that was the question, “If the levy passes, where will the money go?”

Force, who is now the district’s curriculum director, answered this question by stating that learning has changed through the state legislature.

Now, all students graduating will have to pass Algebra I by the end of eighth grade, and Algebra II by the end of high school. As for science, all high school students will need to pass either chemistry or physics in order to graduate.

The district needs to ensure that kids who struggle in these areas get the remedial support they need while keeping those challenged who do well in the subject, according to Force.

Powers added that funds are needed for software updates for online testing at school which aren’t necessary for at-home computers.

Thinesen explained the district will not add any new sports, but they would like the opportunity to be able to hire an extra coach when there are high numbers of students in a particular sport.

“We want to be able to offer an athlete/coach ratio that is needed to be safe,” he said.

Thinesen also answered a question regarding a rumor that the district paid for a coach bus for football, baseball, and swimming tournaments.

Each team’s booster groups paid the difference between the “yellow” bus and the coach bus, Thinesen said.

The question was asked, “What message are we giving the kids if this levy passes? ‘Just ask for it and you’ll get it,’ or ‘work with what you have’ like real life?”

Bjork replied that the board spends nothing in excess and it is very tight and lean with the budget.

“We value education and that’s what a ‘yes’ vote would mean,” he added.

It was asked why the board doesn’t wait for the state legislation to see what it will provide the district.

Powers explained the process in which the board begins making plans for the following year in December and January. Cuts in staffing occur in March to prepare for the next school year, and legislation doesn’t finish until late May.

“Nov. 7, if the levy fails, we will begin looking at where we are going to cut. We can’t wait and see,” he said.

Dahlman added that they already know the state is giving 1 percent for the next school year and, being it’s a budget year, the legislature won’t be making any decisions until May 2009 regarding education funding, he said.

The subject of open enrollment affecting the levy cost was brought up.

Dahlman answered the question, saying it is financially beneficial for a school district to have open enrollment students since the money from the state follows each student, as long as the district does not have to build to accommodate.

Powers explained the district has the control to open or close a grade for students outside the district when necessary.

The question was raised whether or not it was wise to spend approximately $750,000 from the school’s general fund for activities and fine arts.

Thinesen explained the state does not dictate how much a district should spend on activities and said the activities budget was now less than 3 percent of the general fund.

“If extracurriculars are just fun and games, we shouldn’t have them,” Thinesen said.

He went on to explain further that there is learning that goes on during activities that complement what the students learn in the classroom.

In order to offer all kids the same opportunity to participate in activities, the district has to subsidize the cost.

If each activity costs a student and their family $200, not all could afford to participate, Thinesen said.

Dahlman went on to say activities and fine arts are life-long learning and they are an essential part of building kids’ futures.

Powers reported that 65 percent of students in grades seven through 12 are involved in some form of extracurricular activity.

For those involved in activities, there is clear evidence of a lower dropout rate, higher GPAs, and being more likely to attend college, according to Powers.

Low property wealth district

Brad Lundell, director of Schools for Equity in Education (SEE), spoke about the challenges DC faces as a low property wealth school district.

SEE is an association of 58 schools across the state and advocates for legislation that provides both adequate and equitable funding for Minnesota’s public schools.

It believes that all students, regardless of where they live, should have equal educational opportunities.

“Once upon a time,” levies were a way for a community to raise funds for things the state didn’t feel it needed to support, Lundell said.

Now, levies are becoming a necessity, not an extra, he added.

Lundell explained that part of the reason 101 school districts out of 339 are going out for levies this fall is due to the two fiscal years (2003-04 and 2004-05) when the state provided no additional funding.

Although Lundell suggests the long-term solutions for SEE districts would be fundamental reforms in funding for education, the short-term solution is for district taxpayers to support their school districts through a local levy.

“It’s an unfortunate situation to be in, but it’s the reality,” Lundell said.

This brought up a question from Rep. Dean Urdahl (R-Grove City), who asked Lundell what his recommendation for a bill would be.

Instead of the current $800,000 the state is providing for general funding, Lundell recommended $1 billion in order to meet the standards presented to every student.

He also suggests looking at the state tax system; not more taxes, but redesigning the system already in place and making sure they are the right taxes.