When presenting our last levy request in 2011 we heard three things from the community:
- Share how the current levy dollars are being used.
- Align any additional funding request to a specific and detailed plan.
- Make decisions about a levy request early enough to allow adequate time to share information, ask questions and engage voters in conversation.
I am pleased to share that the School Board has taken this feedback to heart and is now in a position to deliver on all three of these items. As board members consider the best way to respond to the expiring $11 million levy, they have worked hard with district staff to develop a detailed outline of how the current levy dollars are being invested and what the impact would be if the levy was not renewed.
The community has also helped to develop a bold and comprehensive new strategic plan designed to create personalized learning pathways that address the needs of each student. All of this work has been shared with the board and public, and on April 11, the School Board will be agreeing to a levy request to place on the November ballot.
To help the board reach a final decision on what a levy request should look like, a survey of district residents was conducted and results were shared at the March 21 board meeting. This scientific-based phone survey was conducted by Dr. Bill Morris of Decision Resources. It asked 400 residents about their attitudes towards the school district. Survey participants were also provided with information about a possible levy, and asked to share their feedback related to a tax increase and how any new funds would be invested.
Morris shared with the board that the attitude toward support for our schools has changed markedly since the last election, with more support than when residents where surveyed in 2011. Overall, he told board members, respondents were pleased with their schools and the direction set by the new strategic plan. Eighty percent of respondents felt the quality of education being provided is “excellent” or “good,” and another 80 percent felt they get a good value for their investment in the district. The district earned favorable marks for the job performance of school board members and district administrators. Teachers also ranked favorably, with 78 percent of respondents rating them as “excellent” or “good.” According to Dr. Morris this represents some of the highest scores across the metro area.
The survey also asked the public several questions about the district’s finances. Many respondents expressed concern about the lack of state funding in recent years and the impact of that on the district’s ability to maintain its quality and excellence. Nearly 40 percent of respondents felt lack of funding and recent budget cuts are the district’s greatest concerns.
In order to help the School Board reach a decision on a levy request this fall, the survey also tested residents’ level of support for three possible levy scenarios: a straight renewal, an increase to half of the state cap and an increase to three-quarters of the state cap. Although there was a higher level of support for a straight renewal, there was also strong support for the other two options asking for an increase with minimal difference between the two. Knowing that a straight renewal would leave the district with an annual shortfall of between $4 to $6 million the board was concerned it would be disingenuous to ask for something that does not stop continual cutting.
When asked how they would like to see new levy dollars invested, respondents supported anti-bullying programs and new curriculum and materials at a rate of nearly 3-to-1. College and career programs, mental health support and elementary programs like world language and art were supported at more than 2-to-1. This is consistent with the action steps contained in the new strategic plan.
Based on the survey results, Morris recommended the board consider placing one levy question on the ballot this November that includes a renewal of the expiring levy along with an increase that would put the district at three-quarters of the state cap. He also suggested the board consider including funding to enhance safety in our schools within this same ballot question. This is the discussion that will take place with the school board April 11.
As you might imagine, hearing that community members support our schools and the new strategic plan was affirming. I believe the increased levels of support are reflective of the actions we have taken to reestablish trust, communication and accountability within our school community.
As school superintendent, a district resident and a parent, I do not take levy requests lightly. The community expects well thought out plans, transparency and follow-through on promises made. It also expects that we are meeting the needs of our students and maintaining a district that is known for excellence. Our district is an integral part of the St. Croix Valley, and the strength of our community is directly correlated to the strength of our schools. I am confident that the hard work of the past two years will ensure excellent results for our students. I am looking forward to the continued conversations about the future of our schools and the slow, yet inevitable arrival of spring.
ISD 834 Schools Superintendent Corey Lunn can be reached at [email protected] or at 651-351-8301. Questions can be mailed to Superintendent, Stillwater Area Public Schools, 1875 S. Greeley St., Stillwater, MN 55082.