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District 833 School Board airs out levy details

District 833 School Board members defended the process used to develop the referendum voters will decide in November after one member said the board should have had more input in deciding how money will be spent.

Publicly expressing concerns with how the levy was drafted, board member Jim Gelbmann said he wanted the board to talk in greater detail about how to spend new funding before it signed off last month on the three-question referendum.

Gelbmann, while voicing support for the levy and hope that it passes, objected to the split between the amount of funding that would be directed to staffing and to technology. And he said previous referendum campaigns had more board and public input before the questions were written.

“Compared to other referendum campaigns, this one has been handled much differently than they have in the past,” Gelbmann said during a wide-ranging levy discussion at a Sept. 12 board meeting. “I guess the discussion is coming, but it’s coming after the decision was made.”

Five other board members countered Gelbmann’s comments. They said levy decisions were thoroughly vetted and based on a survey of 400 district residents, their own observations and input from teachers and school administrators. This is the first referendum attempted during Superintendent Keith Jacobus’ tenure.

“I do feel like we discussed them in exhaustive manner,” Laurie Johnson said, adding that the board balanced the needs of the district with what property taxpayers can afford in a recovering economy.

“I feel truly that the board has had very deep discussions on these,” added Chairman Ron Kath. He also said the public should have confidence with the levy questions they’ll face in November. “We’re not coming out for money just to ask for money.”

The discussion came as board members and administrators are ramping up efforts to outline levy information to parents and voters in south Washington County.

The Nov. 5 ballot will include three school referendum questions.

The first will ask voters to renew two existing levies that generate about $4.6 million annually.

The second question will ask voters whether they want to raise property taxes to provide an additional $6.9 million annually in funding divided four ways: $1.4 million to add building staff based on individual school needs; $1.5 million to enhance security at school buildings; $1.5 million to improve the district’s technology infrastructure to handle added technology-based instruction as well as the district’s business needs; and $2.5 million to maintain the district’s reserve funds.

The third question will ask voters for $8 million so the district can purchase land for a future elementary school and middle school.

The second question has been the main focus of board debate.

Gelbmann raised concerns about the amount of money that would be spent on increasing staff in school buildings compared to what would be put toward enhancing district technology. He wanted more money to be directed to lower the staffing ratio or to address class sizes.

Administrators and board members said the district is relying on outdated technology infrastructure and it affects classroom instruction as well as district business functions.

Andrew Baldwin, the district’s technology director, said technology comes at a cost but there also are costs to not being mindful of those needs. In emphasising the need for reliable support technology, Baldwin said: “You don’t see many V8’s in a Model T.”

“I understand there are (technology) needs, but I also understand there are needs in the classroom,” Gelbmann replied. “It’s the issue of prioritizing.”

The district’s technology shortcomings are apparent in school buildings, said board member Katy McElwee-Stevens, who is a part-time employee at Newport Elementary. Student testing is done on computers and when there are issues with the technology, it affects school schedules.

The district’s technology issues are getting even more attention this fall as students at five schools begin using iPad devices in daily instruction. Administrators say the iPads, which are supported by the district’s technology infrastructure, are not being financed with the district’s general fund or the upcoming levy.

Board member David Kemper said he already has heard from parents who were initially skeptical of the iPad rollout but quickly embraced it after seeing how their children will use it in their curriculum.

If you go

School District 833’s Nov. 5 referendum will be discussed in a series of upcoming “Parent University” community meetings led by Superintendent Keith Jacobus.

The meetings will be:

-- Monday, Sept. 23, 6 p.m., East Ridge High School, Large Group Room

-- Wednesday, Sept. 25, 10 a.m., District Service Center, Board Room

-- Monday, Sept. 30, 6 p.m., Woodbury High School, Lecture Hall

-- Wednesday, Oct. 2, 6 p.m., Park High School, Lecture Hall

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.

(651) 459-7600