School district pitches priorities to state legislators
SCHOOL DISTRICT 833 — Four state lawmakers received homework from District 833 on the eve of the 2019 legislative session.
During a workshop at its Jan. 3 school board meeting, the district presented its legislative platform to Sens. Karla Bigham and Susan Kent and Reps. Anne Claflin and Tony Jurgens.
Among changes they'd like to see enacted by lawmakers: the go-ahead to renew levies without holding an election, more state funding for special education and the English learners program, and more discretion in state testing of high school students.
"Many, many times what is best for the full state doesn't work well in each individual district," District 833 Superintendent Keith Jacobus told lawmakers.
The legislative priorities include:
Grant school boards the authority to renew operating levies rather than holding an election.
The request only pertains to levy renewals, not a new referendum that would increase property taxes.
Renewing an operating levy just once in this manner would save time and money, district director of communications Shelly Schafer said.
As an example, she cited $6,200 the district spent to print educational materials for the 2017 referendum. They also held over 100 community meetings.
"That is an incredible amount of time and resources on behalf of the district," she said.
The ongoing request for a 3 percent increase in the general education base formula — per-pupil-unit money annually provided from the state — indexed to inflation, and more money for special education.
Dan Pyan, director of finance and operations, told lawmakers that the district spent $40 million in special education during the 2017-18 school year. It had to take $17 milion from its general fund to make up for the state aid shortfall.
Provide property tax relief, in the form of state equalization aid, to school districts whose homeowners pay a disproportionately high tax share.
"Districts that have a higher commercial property (base) in their district, when they ask for referendum dollars, there's less of a burden on each individual household," Jacobus said. "We happen to be a district that is higher in residential property and low in commercial property. When we raise $100 that same $100 is much more expensive to our taxpayers and our homeowners than other districts."
Allow lease levy funding to be used to add needed common spaces in school buildings.
The funding currently is restricted to adding classrooms and other educational spaces.
Assistant Superintendent Mike Johnson told lawmakers the district would like to be able to use some of that money on restrooms, cafeterias and secure entries. He cited overcrowding at East Ridge High School, which has necessitated the need to expand the cafeteria, and the need for more restrooms at its 1960s prototype elementary schools.
"As the population grows, there comes more of a strain on our common spaces," he said. "We'd like the flexibly to make those structural adjustments to the schools when we see the need to do so."
The authority to decide which state tests to give high school students.
High school students take the MCA math, reading and science tests at various grade levels. Eleventh-graders also take the ACT college and career readiness exam as well as the MCA math test at different times in the same year.
Brian Boothe, director of professional development and accountability, told lawmakers the district wants to streamline the testing calendar. Overtesting costs the district time that could be better spent on classroom instruction and professional development.
"We are asking for, at the high school level, to shift away from using the MCA and shift toward the ACT," Boothe said. "It is a measure that our high schools value much more than the MCAs."
More money for the English learner program.
Over the past four years the number of students for whom English is a second language increased from about 200 students to 1,000, said Kelly Jansen, director of teaching and learning services. The district spent $3.3 million on the English learning program in the 2017-18 school year. But they only received $690,000 in federal and state funding, which meant they had to cough up $2.6 million from the general fund.
"As you can tell, it's a huge gap between what we needed to provide for services and the funding we receive from the state and federal government," she said.