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‘Why I’m Voting Yes”: Community Members’ Perspective on the St. Michael-Albertville Referendum

The community is being asked to go to bat for the St. Michael-Albertville School District once again. Why it's O.K. to keep saying "yes." The second in today's two-part series.

Editor's Note: This is the second in a two-part series that looks at where local residents are falling on the upcoming St. Michael-Albertville School District Operations Levy referendum, set for Tuesday, Nov. 8. The opinions expressed are those of the people interviewed for the story, and not of St. Michael Patch.

It’s not a difficult task in St. Michael-Albertville to find supporters of education, and they’ll be happy to tell you their reasoning for standing behind the school district in supporting the upcoming levy referendum.

Less than two weeks away, the new levy would bring in an additional $1.2 million annually into the district’s budget that they will use to maintain current opportunities, transportation levels and classroom settings. Supporters say that keeping STMA schools adequately funded will benefit the entire community; here is why they say they are voting "yes" on Nov. 8.

Kelly Tufto, a St. Michael Elementary third grade teacher and mother of two, said her daily life is affected by the outcome of this referendum, and she is voting "yes" in the best interest of both her students and her own children.

She cited class sizes as a top factor in her support of the levy. Superintendent Dr. Jim Behle has said that cuts to teaching positions would have to factor into the budget-balancing equation if the levy doesn’t pass, and Tufto said she has seen class sizes rise due to increasing enrollment alone, without the added difficulty of cutting teaching positions.

With 27 students in her class this year compared with 23 or 24 previously, Tufto said the extra bodies in the class make it increasingly difficult to meet all the needs of her learners in their differing ability levels. Tufto teaches a cluster of gifted students–there are two such clusters in each grade level–so she’s working to keep her high-achieving students challenged, along with the normal variation in the rest of her class.

“To have larger class sizes … will make learning more challenging,” she said. “It’s amazing what just three more kids adds to the classroom, and I didn’t realize what an effect it would have on my teaching and the learning that is going on. It really is a ripple effect.”

When it comes to technology, levy supporters say it’s important to maintain current infrastructure and replace computers after a reasonable number of years. As a maintenance levy, they stress that the additional funds would not be going toward providing all the latest and greatest gadgets, only to maintain the current options and keep systems running smoothly. Tufto said the computers they are working with at STME are now several years old, and significant time is taken to get the computers up and functioning properly in the mornings.

Levy supporter Joel Martin said he worries about the future of STMA’s broad range of extra-curricular activities if the levy doesn’t pass, saying fees will almost certainly increase and/or activities will be cut altogether. Though the activity may remain available through private club, he said the significantly higher costs of a club program would put a real stress on family budgets, especially those who have multiple children who want to be involved.

Compared to these possible spikes in participation fees, St. Michael supporter Chad Libby compared the additional levy taxes–$7.33 per month for a $200,000 property–as a much cheaper expenditure than little luxuries many residents spend money on without too much concern, such as a daily latte on the way to work.

At a time where many other factors area against school districts, supporters are hoping the community will stand in partnership with STMA’s schools. Resident and levy supporter Paul Ederer said the state funding formula works against the district, leading STMA to be in the bottom 5 percent for general education funding.

“The district ranks 331 out of 336 school districts in the state for its funding level,” he said. “Even if the Nov. 8 levy passes, the district’s rank will only move up to rank 319.”

Flat state funding for the past few years has also caused financial stress, since inflationary costs like heating bills and health insurance plans for employees keep rising while funding remains flat. And the state’s funding shifts to balance their own budgets have put stress on every district in the state, he added.

Ederer added the school district has always been responsible with spending. As a former school board member who served in the 1980s, he said the  district has always maintained a balanced budget and a responsible reserve fund. Since the district has already cut $1.44 million from its budget in the past four years, he said the levy money is needed to ensure that the school board can continue its sound fiscal practices without taking too much from students to achieve it.

“It’s obvious that the purpose of the levy is just to maintain what the district is currently doing: maintaining a high level of educational opportunities for the young people in the district,” said Ederer. “This is an investment in our youth: education of young people is a legacy we all need to leave behind because that is the future of our country.”

The biggest point these supporters are pushing is that a strong, well-supported school district doesn’t just benefit the schools-it benefits the whole community.

“These students that you are supporting right now in our district will, in a few years, be in the workforce,” Tufto said. “Having them better prepared to be successful in our society is also going to benefit us.”

“The strength of your community has a lot to do with your schools, and that’s good for everybody: whether you own a business or own a home,” Martin added. “A good, sound school district is one of the most important things people look at when they look to buy a home or open a business. It’s a pretty small price to pay but a really good return on investment.”

STMAMOM November 06, 2011 at 05:38 PM
Why are you so opposed to paying these people decent salaries? Don't you think it might help retain good employees.
Al Anderson November 06, 2011 at 06:01 PM
Because it's a monopoly that's why - and it is one of the two primary reasons (the other being capital expenditures) that school districts whine that they are always short of money!! - The communities tax $ are leveraged by unions who do not have the kids education interests in mind. I do have sympathy for younger teachers and the salaries they receive - but also know that salaries aren't the only form of compensation. It's easily seen by the above that a salary in STMA is a much smaller portion of the overall compensation package then it is for private sector employees. Lastly, private sector employees are hurting - either job loss, no salary increases, increased medical premium costs, 401k/IRA losses, uncertainty in every direction. Yet, the taxpayer is always asked to suck it up for overly expensive k-12 education -- with education using children as their "shield" to higher taxes. Education reform needs to happen - Federal/state mandate reform, Federal/state purse string reform, employee contract reform, pension/health care reform etc. Taxpayers should not be on the hook for public sector employees pensions. Continuing to support referendums without reform is just kicking the can down the road. I believe in excellence in education for our children -- it is probably the most important tax expenditure we make. But the K-12 machine needs to be reformed before asking for more $ from an already tapped out taxpayer.
Albertville Resident November 06, 2011 at 09:27 PM
So are you saying that Dr. Ziegler is paid approximately $571 for a days work? Doesn't that seem absurd to you?
Rick November 06, 2011 at 10:38 PM
Thanks for the numbers Al. Like I said above, I wish everyone in our district read this thread and looked at the numbers and links and then made an educated decision. I fear too many people will march lockstep down to the school and vote "for the kids" which is pure nonsense. Reforming the system would be a start. Disenfranchising from Doohers union would be a good start. Looking at salaries and positions would be another. $118k for an HR manager of a school district not counting benefits is WAY above the norm for this position, and as a fact, the average for an HR Manager, not director, is around 70k with a more moderate benefits package. Don't get me wrong. If my boss came up to me and said "Rick, you're a great employee and we're doubling your salary, cutting your copays for health and dental in half and giving you 36 hours PTO credit per month worked, I sure would not turn that down. It's been the norm to offer this stuff at taxpayer expense with a majority of the gvmt sector. If your suggestion regarding retirement was taken to heart and initiated, this lavy may have more supporters. But we all saw what happened in WI. Just look what's going on with the Mayors race in San Francisco right now too...
Sonja Buckmeier November 06, 2011 at 11:49 PM
School board meeting tomorrow night at 7PM- agenda includes reports by our representatives Amy Koch and Joe McDonald. Come ask them questions as to how to balance a budget when the state is witholding 40% of money. Ask them what is in the works for reform. Also on the agenda is a report from Brad Lundell who is with Schools for Equity in Education. See link: http://www.schoolsforequity.org/About_Us.html
Al Anderson November 07, 2011 at 12:16 AM
Sonja Thanks for the information update. Wish I could make it. I do have to ask the question -- why is the School district having someone like Brad Lundell provide a report?
Rick November 07, 2011 at 12:25 AM
http://www.schoolsforequity.org/About_Us.html = lobbying group.
Al Anderson November 07, 2011 at 12:29 AM
Rick Yep....a lobbying group that advocates taking away local control of education. Just what we need. Sonja Can you tell me who requested this individual to present to the board?
Sonja Buckmeier November 07, 2011 at 12:43 AM
•Schools for Equity in Education (SEE) is an association of 58 school districts throughout the state of Minnesota. STMA is one of the 58. Below is further information: SEE works for . . . •Equal access to a quality education for all of Minnesota's students regardless of the property wealth in their local school district. •Legislation that ensures equitable distribution of school resources. •A property tax system that is fair and provides equal access to referendum and bond revenue for low property wealth school districts, communities and their taxpayers. •Holding elected state officials accountable for adequate and equitable funding and policy that enables all students to meet state and federal academic standards and allows them to reach their highest potential. •An educated and engaged community of parents, grandparents, community members, business leaders – everyone who values K-12 education in Minnesota to stand up and be a voice for our children and their schools.
Al Anderson November 07, 2011 at 12:45 AM
Thank you for sharing that. I will be contacting Doug Birk as well as Behle about STMA's involvement.
Sonja Buckmeier November 07, 2011 at 02:03 AM
To clarify again- the state average for district level administration is 5.4% of the budget and STMA spends 2.3%. The state average spent on district level administration is $553 per pupil and STMA is $179. Also, I was part of the levy advisory committee and no members were paid. There are several committees throughout the district and no members are paid- community curriculum advisory, community ed advisory council, technology advisory, and parent advisory committees at the schools.
Rick November 07, 2011 at 03:34 AM
This is the mentality that is out there. Another district pays "X" so we have to pay "X", rather than the other district looking at their numbers and asking themselves why their admin costs are so much. The other issue (among the many) is there seems to be quite a communication gap going on. Only when this levy and the spectre of losing raised it's head did I start seeing emails from the district. I never saw an email looking for volunteers for a levy committee. And as such, the committees are hand picked most often by those desiring to see a levy enacted or in this case, one redacted in favor for a larger one. Lastly, for those of us who work and have families, if I went to every city council meeting, every school board meeting, every PTO meeting, every council and advisory committee meeting, I'd have to quit my job as would mostly everyone else. So it's not a fact that most of us don't want to attend, it's plain and simple that we can't. Councils know this, school boards know this, thus a lot of stuff flies under the radar until it's too late.
Rick November 07, 2011 at 03:43 AM
Sonja, to clarify.. You say the state is withholding 40% of STMA's school budget funds? Or is the 40% you're talking about the requested raise in school funding in the states biennium budget that the DFL wanted and only got a partial increase? If the state were withholding 40%, what's asked for in this levy is the hair off of a peanut shell, not even the full peanut. Where is the meeting at btw?
Al Anderson November 07, 2011 at 04:04 AM
STMA doesn't have the same issues that other districts have - so to me it's an apples and oranges comparison. Additionally, some districts are so overloaded with administration (Mpls and St Paul in particular) - that the average is artificially high. The best way of looking at the situation is to look at the detail of the current costs of the district and see if additional costs can be cut as well as increase achievement (by whatever measuring stick is used). Tax increases should be a last resort. I pointed out in the messages from this morning that what STMA and every other district in Minnesota (maybe the country) needs is Tenure reform, Contract reform (all employees), Abolish the Federal dept of Education with meaningful mandates becoming a state concern. Reduce the political game playing at the state level -- keep as many of the decisions for a district to be decided at a LOCAL level as reasonably feasible. Cut the purse string games and let local school districts perform their magic.
Al Anderson November 07, 2011 at 04:04 AM
And Rick - I agree completely - there was never a call/email for volunteers. The School district set out to find volunteers who would aggressively advocate for a levy. I would have expected the "community members" to have come from a broader spectrum than the people I saw on that list. The information that was on the website and recently mailed to each and every STMA home are typical one-sided pieces of propaganda that you see every school district ply to win referendums (STMA is better than most - but it’s still biased information) . There was no full disclosure on the details of the ongoing costs of this district – nor links to where you could look for it. Yes, contracts were available online for most segments of the district and additional information could be painstakingly garnered - but all information should be readily available online to the stakeholders of the community. To not do so - gives the real impression that the district is playing loose and fast and is only willing to show "spin
Sonja Buckmeier November 07, 2011 at 04:28 AM
The board meeting is at Middle School West at 7PM. It would be nice to have the board meetings taped so that community members could view them at their convience. From the district website under the operating levy information tab FAQ: 5. Why does the district need more money? Basic general education aid was frozen for two years and as a result state funding has not kept up with inflationary increases. While funding has not increased, the district must continue to provide the same level of state and federal mandated services. No Child Left Behind and special education programs are only partially funded mandates. Minnesota school districts will receive only 90% of its state aid funding this year. The Minnesota state budget is balanced by delaying state aid payments to schools in a process called the “shift”. Initially, 10% of state aid was shifted to the next school year. Over time this was increased to 30% and for this year 40%. The effect is that the district will receive only 90% of its funding this year – 60% of this year’s state aid and 30% of last year’s state aid. The district may need to begin borrowing money in 2012-13 because of the shift and delay in state aid payments. The district is fiscally sound and operates under a balanced budget and has not needed to borrowed money in the past.
Sonja Buckmeier November 07, 2011 at 04:31 AM
# 5 cont- Federal revenue pays the salaries and benefits for eight teachers. In 2010-11, these federal funds were used to add additional teachers when elementary class sizes became too large and for extra reading instruction to students who required additional assistance. This funding will be eliminated next year. Money for technology is needed to replace computers. The oldest computers are at Big Woods and the replacement costs are estimated at $323,000. The district has used bond dollars to not only build schools but also to maintain existing buildings. These funds are no longer available.
Sonja Buckmeier November 07, 2011 at 04:32 AM
6. Didn’t the legislature and governor approve a $50 per pupil unit increase for each of the next two years in the general education aid? Yes, the increase of the $50 per pupil unit is greatly appreciated. However, remember because of the shift the district will only receive $30 this year. It will be used to hire additional teachers for unanticipated increases in enrollment. The district does not wish to incur the expense of borrowing money because of the delay in state aid payments so the balance of the increase will be placed in reserve to offset the delay (shift) in state aid and prevent the district from borrowing money this year to cash flow the district. 7. What is the status of the 2011-12 school budget? The district is financially sound. It has a balanced general education budget as it has for many years. The district has a 12% to 14% cash reserve so that is does not needed to borrow unlike many school districts in Minnesota. A Finance Advisory Committee meets several times in February through May to study projected revenues and expenditures and makes recommendations to the superintendent. The committee is made up of community members and staff.
JoJo November 07, 2011 at 05:16 AM
Not exactly...I served on a curriculum committee a few years ago - the math one, specifically. The parents (always less than 5, usually 2) were not paid, but every school employee in the room (more than 10 each month) received a stipend for their time. They could lobby their preferences all year long on my dime...hardly fair.
JoJo November 07, 2011 at 05:21 AM
It's a great point. The levy committee/volunteers are solicited via PTO meetings and sports email lists, where you are far more likely to find people who will support any raising of taxes "for the children". I used to go to PTO meetings, but it sickened me how it was just a bunch of cheerleading yes-moms (didn't have dads in there when I was there). If you are a dem or liberal rep who believes that there's never too much spent on education, you'll love the PTO.
Phil Gammell November 07, 2011 at 09:03 PM
My wife and I will both be voting yes. Not only are the technical upgrades needed, we need to continue to support extracurricular activities, ie: band, NHS, arts, clubs and yes sports. We are continually told that extracurricular activities, increase GPA's, lets us know what are students are involved in and redeuces amount of idle time. We are voting yes to support the School District, our students, and yes the Community. Please follow our lead and vote YES tomorrow.
Rick November 08, 2011 at 12:26 AM
Phil, you cite some certain activities that yes, certainly should be funded. What I totally disagree with is the costs being cited for a levy increase, one btw that was approved for ten years and won't make 8 if this passes. The fact that teaching positions will be cut when the funding for them was temporary to begin with. People need to wake up and smell the coffee in this country. This same stunt plays out over and over, and of course this is why the unions (thank God a lot of their membership doesn't follow and has minds of their own) endorse the liberal candidate. Think about it... DFL politician X gets temporary funding approved for "emergency services." Then the funding expires. Now you see (take a look at St Paul Mayor Coleman for a prime example) DFL politican running around saying evil Conservatives want to fire cops and you'll now be less safe. This is EXACTLY what's going on here. Temporary funding is now gone, thus those positions that were hired for with those funds will now go, thus if WE don't approve this levy, we're bad people because we don't believe in educating the kids. This is absolute pure nonsense. What the school district should have done is refused the money, OR told the fed/state we'll take it. And we're banking it to purchase new computers or something of that nature. And what do you think will be voter turnout tomorrow? I'll bet it's less than 20%.
Al Heitkamp November 08, 2011 at 12:43 AM
Really bogesmn? If someone does not agree with your point of view they are ignorant?
Al Anderson November 08, 2011 at 04:43 AM
I need to follow-up on a comment you made on a different thread about providing the "opposition" the opportunity to make their concerns known. Why, when the Patch didn't provide additional details into the true costs at STMA - did you attempt to shut down that attempt? The Patch linked up every single effort from the adminstrations' side (biased as it is) ....why wouldn't you allow for the same? Full disclosure is important from all vantage points.
Al Anderson November 08, 2011 at 04:59 AM
Vote NO tomorrow for the following reasons 1) No meaningful spending reforms will happen unless stakeholders (taxpayers) begin to say NO to ever increasing costs without that reform. Hold the School district accountable. Educate yourself on the costs that are driving the demand for more of your money. Ask for reform and superior school performance. More money isn't always the right answer. 2)STMA is not Buffalo is not Elk RIver is not Monticello is not Minneapolis or anywhere else. Do not be fooled by the comparisons that others make to other districts. Each district has its own characteristics. STMA is largely comprised of parents who care about their kids' education - and that has been proven to be the prime component towards achievement success. 3) Most households are suffering from many difficult financial years - job loss, salary freeze, increased medical premium costs, house foreclosures, huge losses in their 401k/IRA's. Why shouldn't contract reform take precedence over tax increases? 4) Help the school district out by partnering with them to lobby for reduced Federal and State mandates - both legislation reform as well as providing the school district more flexibility in how the tax $ they take from you gets spent. After all, the goal here is to provide the best possible education for students at the least cost. Vote NO now - with an eye on improving education in the long term.
Al Heitkamp November 08, 2011 at 12:08 PM
I went to the school board meeting last night. Senator Amy Koch and Representative Joe McDonald spoke on the funding issues facing STMA. Much of the meeting centered on the inequity of state funding among Minnesota school districts. As the meeting progressed, it became very clear to me that this by far is the biggest obstacle facing our district. In my opinion, this inequity in funding is where we as District 885 tax payers should be outraged. Only five schools districts in the state receive less per pupil funding than STMA. We send our tax dollars off to St. Paul and they are being dispersed to other districts in the state. Monticello gets ~$1,000 more in per pupil funding from the state when compared to STMA. If our district received $1000 more in per pupil funding, we probably would not be having a debate about this levy. This inequity needs to be resolved at the state level and we need to push our state legislators and the governor to act. Unfortunately, this is probably not going to be resolved before our current levy expires. Until the funding issue is resolved, our district has no choice but to try to get this levy passed. I’d like to thank Senator Koch and Representative McDonald for attending the meeting. It is unfortunate few members of our community were on hand to hear what they had to say. If you value education in your own community, please vote YES today.
No November 10, 2011 at 05:58 PM
I am sooooooooooooooooooooo with you!
No November 10, 2011 at 06:29 PM
Well said!
No November 10, 2011 at 06:34 PM
Excellent comment!
No November 10, 2011 at 07:08 PM
Exactly! Post the information online!

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