St. Paul schools: Silva urges board to seek levy increase in November

/ 12 June 2012 / jennifer

Valeria Silva, St. Paul school district superintendent

Mila Koumpilova, Pioneer Press, June 12, 2012 –

The St. Paul school district might ask taxpayers to pitch in extra this fall.

Superintendent Valeria Silva on Tuesday, June 12, urged the school board to ask for an increase when the district goes to the polls in November to seek an eight-year renewal of its $646 per pupil operating levy.

The additional $175 per pupil would raise an extra $9 million and help fund a new plan of harnessing technology to individualize instruction, which Silva deemed “the future of education.”

The new levy would raise taxes by about $65 a year on a $149,000 home, the median value in the district this year.

“The increase sought is modest, and it is laser-focused on a small number of high-value investments in teaching and learning,” Silva said.

The school board will decide whether to pursue the increase or stick with a renewal of the existing levy at its July 17 meeting.

In either case, the district faces some hurdles on the way to passage: the “noise” of a packed presidential election year ballot, lingering economic malaise and, possibly, a recent brightening of the district’s financial outlook that some on the board have worried might blunt voters’ sense of urgency.

Since its approval in 2006, the existing district levy has brought in as much as $30 million a year. It has helped fund pre-kindergarten and all-day kindergarten classrooms, smaller class sizes, high school guidance counselors, advanced science courses and more.

The district credits the levy with narrowing the learning gap between black and white children bound for its kindergarten classrooms and with fueling gains on the state science test that have outpaced Minnesota averages.

“The investments made through the referendum have paid off,” Silva said.

She said the additional funding would go toward the Student Learning and Engagement Plan, a new technology initiative that administrators described in general terms, with help from Washington Technology Magnet footage showing students wielding iPads, uploading videos and tapping into online resources for help with homework.

Silva said the plan will help the district close the technology gap between families of varying incomes.

She partly based her recommendation for a levy increase on a recent survey the district commissioned to gauge residents’ level of support.

The phone survey of more than 600 registered voters — about 20 percent of them parents in the district — found strong support for a levy renewal: 77 percent.

And that support increased in response to additional questions spelling out possible consequences of nonrenewal, such as larger class sizes and a downsized pre-kindergarten program.

About 57 percent said they would back the additional $175 per pupil — support that dropped off precipitously when the survey inquired about larger tax bill increases, to about a quarter of respondents for a $200-a-year hike on a median value home.

Don Lifto of Springsted, the public sector advisory firm that conducted the survey, called such studies “a very, very good” predictor of election outcomes that tend to come within 5 percentage points of the actual vote.

The district paid Springsted about $29,000 to conduct the survey and consult the district. The survey had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

On Tuesday, the board did not get specific answers to questions about how much of the new money would go toward hardware, training and teacher support. Some members wanted more evidence from St. Paul and other districts that technology measurably raises achievement.

Still, some members said they liked the sound of the plan.

“It’s an engagement and learning plan supported by technology rather than a technology plan,” board member Anne Carroll said.

A budget prognosis the district hailed as good news this spring would play into the final decision, board members have said. A modest enrollment increase, a slight boost in state support, a 3.6 percent school tax hike and other revenue increases helped prop up the district’s finances. A proposed $655.8 million budget for the coming school year includes plans to hire an additional 175 teachers, among other new spending.

The proposed levy increase would represent an almost 9 percent jump over the $726 in school taxes the owner of a median value St. Paul home pays this year. The district said the new $821 per pupil levy would still be the lowest for large metro area districts.

Greg Abbott of the Minnesota School Board Association said districts have to work extra hard to get the referendum word out in presidential election years, when higher-profile electoral standoffs can overshadow school requests.

He said he expects the number of such requests to drop off from last year’s 114 — a successful school election round with a passage rate that, at 80 percent, was the highest in the past decade. In the seven-county metro area, though, just two districts that asked for increases to existing levies were successful.

“In a presidential year, there are a lot of wild cards in the mix,” Abbott said. “I’d say it’s a 50-50 gamble for districts in a presidential year.”

Mila Koumpilova can be reached at 651-228-2171.


How the St. Paul school district budgeted spending its $646 per pupil operating levy in 2011-12:

— All-day kindergarten, $3.1 million

— Early childhood and family education, $1.8 million

— Pre-kindergarten, $4.2 million

— Secondary math and science, $5.8 million

— Other secondary programs, $1.4 million

— Technology, $1 million

— Special education, $4.4 million

— English language learner and dual immersion programs, $1 million

— Elementary support, $5.2 million

— Charter schools, $300,000