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District 833 Superintendent Keith Jacobus makes a point during a recent Parent University public meeting intended to present information about the South Washington County Schools levy referendum Nov. 5. (Bulletin photo by Scott Wente)

School District 833 makes levy information push

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As local school teachers are diving into curriculum this fall, District 833 leaders are doing their own educating.

A team of administrators led by Superintendent Keith Jacobus is in the midst of a campaign to inform parents and residents about the district’s fiscal situation and why the school system is asking property taxpayers for more money this fall. In-person, on the Internet and through the mail, they are explaining how the approved levies would be spent and, should they fail, generally how the district will have to respond: with more budget cuts.

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“It’s really important that people have the factual information,” Jacobus said recently.

In nearly a month, voters will go to the polls to elect five South Washington County School Board members and to settle three questions posed by the district: Should two existing operating levies generating $4.5 million a year be renewed; should the district receive an additional $6.9 million annually for operations and specific safety and technology infrastructure upgrades; and should it collect another $8 million to buy land for new school buildings.

Jacobus and others say the district needs the money that would flow from the approved levies to maintain and expand education programs, but that the request is limited to what they believe taxpayers can support.

“We listened to them,” Jacobus said of residents during a levy presentation to the Newport City Council. It was one of dozens of information meetings he and other district officials are leading ahead of the Nov. 5 vote.

Whether district residents are listening might not be clear until Election Day. While the levy details were based in part on public input, including through an independent survey, recent public meetings held to inform people about the levy and field their questions have drawn few participants. The first two widely promoted Parent University informational meetings on the levy drew just over a dozen people total.

District officials say if residents aren’t aware of the upcoming referendum or why the district is seeking the money, it isn’t for their lack of trying.

They established an extensive communications plan to “motivate citizens, particularly parents,” to be informed of the levy questions and to vote in November. The plan was created by Communications Director Barb Brown and Julie Nielsen, a principal on special assignment leading the levy informational campaign. It includes nearly 100 meetings with district staff, school PTOs, parents, civic groups, local legislators and others.

Additionally, the district has posted information and will add more details about the levy on its website. Jacobus is the subject of a weekly YouTube video about the levy. Information is being distributed to parents via email by building principals. This is the first time the district has gone out for a levy in the social media age. It’s viewed as another way to reach residents, and the district’s levy information is promoted on Facebook and Twitter.

By mid-October, all district residents and property taxpayers will receive by first-class mail a district-produced brochure explaining details about the referendum and polling place information.

Given the scope of the informational campaign and work involved, Jacobus put Nielsen on special assignment to help coordinate the campaign. She is being paid her regular salary to work on the levy full time through the election; a temporary principal is filling in for her at Middleton Elementary until November.

Jacobus said that was his decision.

“It’s important to have one person (leading the campaign) so you’re not losing pieces as you’re going through,” he said.

The arrangement drew frustration from one district resident recently.

Andrea Mayer-Bruestle, a Woodbury resident, approached the School Board last week to question taxpayer money being used to put Nielsen on the assignment. Mayer-Bruestle said she is concerned about a “perception of impropriety” about the levy campaign.

“It would appear as if the district is using public funds to promote the outcome they desire,” Mayer-Bruestle said.

The school district is legally prohibited from advocating for a particular outcome in a levy.

“If you’re sticking with the factual information, that’s exactly what we’re allowed to do and what we should do,” Jacobus said in an interview.

Going out for a referendum is a lot of work for a school district, said Greg Abbott, communications director for the Minnesota School Boards Association, and metropolitan school district superintendents often designate a staff member to lead the effort.

“That’s not uncommon to have someone else doing it,” Abbott said, even as the superintendent often is the face of the campaign.

Often, though, the district’s communications director is designated to lead the levy work, Abbott noted.

School levy information

To learn about the South Washington County Schools Nov. 5 referendum, visit the district’s website at www.sowashco.k12.mn.us and select “Nov. 5, 2013 Election” at top left.

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Scott Wente
Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.
(651) 459-7600
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