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About Those “Yes” Signs

September 26, 2012 By Mary Doran, Guest Commentary

Property tax levies have become a key method for our school districts to respond to unreliable state funding.

The current Saint Paul Public Schools levy expires at the end of this year. The district is asking voters to renew and increase its levy to continue proven programs and to make needed investments in instructional and learning technology.

This should be a simple choice for Saint Paul voters concerned about the future of our community. A successful urban school district has a positive effect on the quality of life, property values and future workforce of the city. If we do education well, everything else gets easier.

Despite having the second largest number of students in the state, and needing to address the varying needs of one of the most diverse student populations, the Saint Paul Public School district continues to show academic progress—progress that is clearly the result of programs funded by the voter-approved property tax levy.

Since the current levy was passed in 2006, every child in Saint Paul has had access to full-day kindergarten. The levy pays for the difference between state funded half-day kindergarten and more effective full-day kindergarten.
It pays for pre-kindergarten for 1200 four-year-olds each year. According to studies done by the Federal Reserve, investment in early childhood education gets the highest return.

Referendum dollars are also used to reduce class sizes in science and mathematics classes at the high school level. They fund reading and math supports at the elementary school levels. Again, the very areas of study that are needed to help America compete.

Finally, referendum dollars are used to cover the funding gap between mandated special education services and the amount of money provided by the state for those services.

All of that goes away if the 2012 referendum to renew the levy does not pass.

Have these investments worked in Saint Paul? The answer is yes.

  • 87% of Pre-K students are on grade-level target for reading.
  • Students who participated in SPPS full-day kindergarten performed over 4 percentage points higher on 3rd grade MCA reading and math tests than their classmates who did not attend SPPS kindergarten
  • SPPS science scores increased faster than the state average
  • Graduation rates increased for all student groups

An increase to the levy is also part of the ballot question. Learning Transformed by Technology will accelerate investments in instructional technology, allowing teachers to personalize learning according to the needs of each student. This is teaching to our future, something every other successful district in our nation will need to do. It is also something other districts in Minnesota, like Edina, have already done. Under current funding, it will take up to 20 years to ensure all students have equal access to learning enhanced by technology. Referendum funding will allow the project to be implemented starting now.

In Saint Paul Public Schools, there are pockets of excellence where dedicated teachers have been able to use grants and special programs to integrate technology in more aspects of instruction. These fortunate students are able to receive instruction tailored to their learning needs rather than the one-size-fits-all model. As a result, students are more engaged and motivated, making it easier to access lessons in the way they learn best.

The referendum will allow Saint Paul Public Schools to expand our pockets of excellence to all 39,000 students in the district. It will allow today’s students to master the skills they will need to succeed in the present and thrive in the future while enabling teachers to better ensure every child has a chance to succeed.

Digital learning tools will allow students to access, produce, distribute and modify information and creative content with unprecedented speed, ease and scope. With the additional investments in technology, students will develop the critical personal and professional skills they need to enter a 21st century job market and world.

All of this will increase the property tax of the owner of the median price Saint Paul home ($149,000) by the equivalent of $5.10 a month.

If the referendum does not pass, the Saint Paul Public Schools will see an immediate shortfall of $30 million a year. All of the levy-funded programs will go away. Failure like this doesn’t just affect the 39,000 students currently in Saint Paul Public Schools. It affects the quality of life of a community that will not benefit from the highly productive tax-paying citizens these students will become as adults. It affects the property value of homes across the city. It affects the employment prospects for businesses in Minnesota that depend on today’s students to become tomorrow’s employees.

School referenda are risky. They depend on voters understanding that they are making a decision that will affect the lives of thousands of children, as well as their own community, in a very real way. But, in these times of unstable state funding for education, they are the most stable funding for critical investments in education.
 

Mary Doran is a mother of two and a member of the Saint Paul Board of Education.

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