St. Paul schools referendum raises questions

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On November 7, in addition to state offices, St. Paul residents will vote on a request from the St. Paul School District to renew its 2002 levy, which would raise $13.5 million over the next six years and would increase the average home or business owner’s annual property tax by about $87.

The St. Paul School District serves more than 41,000 students at 250 sites staffed by 6,500 professionals.

According to district sources, failure of the referendum would result in over $10 million in cuts to schools. That translates to more than 130 teachers across the district and an average increase in class size of two students.

“I have a lot of questions,” said Marty Wolf, who has three children in St. Paul schools, the youngest at St. Anthony Park. He said he would like to know more about the referendum and how the money raised will make a difference. But in the end, he said, “I will always come down in favor of public education.”

Spending decisions within many individual schools are made by site councils. At St. Anthony Park Elementary, the site council consists of principal Andrea Dahms, seven elected parent members, five staff members and a community representative, currently Rosie Foreman, head librarian at St. Anthony Park Library.

Jay Schrader, parent of two children in St. Paul public schools, has been a member of the site council for four years and is serving his second year as co-chair.

“I have learned a lot about the behind-the-scenes challenges that our teachers and professional staff face every day,” he said.

Those challenges have included making difficult adjustments over the past five years as funding from state and federal sources has diminished, Schrader said. He added that the school has struggled to keep the cuts out of the classroom.

For example, a year ago the site council made the difficult decision to cut the school librarian. To allow children to continue using the library, teachers received training in using the library computer system, and parents volunteered to come in daily to shelve books.

Schrader said that volunteer parents and community members put in hundreds of hours and take care of dozens of tasks that keep the school program running smoothly. They help in the classroom and with publishing the school literary journal and running the student council.

The St. Anthony Park School Association (SAPSA) raises over $7,000 a year to fund field trips and other special events.

According to Schrader, the site council has trimmed as much fat as possible.

“If we lose money, it will impact the number of teachers and the class size,” he said. “There’s no place else to find money.”

He said the 2002 levy has mainly been used to pay for teachers and keep elementary school class sizes near 22.

The site council has been concerned about declining enrollment, a district-wide trend. However, enrollment this fall at the school is 66 more than predicted. Funding for all public schools is on a per-pupil basis.

Schrader said that St. Anthony Park Elementary strives to maintain a healthy enrollment by publicizing itself as “a strong school that produces successful children.”

The school offers both all-day and half-day kindergarten. Its standardized test scores, said Schrader, rank high in the district.

Declining district-wide enrollment, coupled with more students who qualify for special education services, have pinched all St. Paul public schools, Schrader said.

He praised the staff, parents and volunteers at St. Anthony Park Elementary for keeping the school strong and successful.

For example, Schrader said, the school found a way to fund all-day kindergarten this year, while many other schools are hoping the referendum money will help them offer it in the future. St. Anthony Park Elementary also managed to add specialists in science, vocal music and physical education.

Schrader said that an extended referendum would barely enable schools to keep up with inflation and to fund programs across the district for students with special needs.

In St. Paul public schools, 38 percent of students are English language learners, 65 percent are eligible for free or reduced lunch and 15 percent qualify for special education.

Dan Krivit, a member of St. Anthony Park Elementary’s ad hoc Government Affairs Committee, said, “The referendum is a temporary solution. We recognize that ultimately the legislature needs to address the K–12 funding package.”

This month, to help inform community members before they enter the voting booth on November 7, SAPSA and the St. Anthony Park Elementary site council will co-sponsor a forum on school financing. Sen. Ellen Anderson, Rep. Alice Hausman and a representative from the St. Paul School District will participate. The forum will take place October 17, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., in the school library.

St. Anthony Park Elementary is located at 2180 Knapp St. For more information, call the school at 293-8735 or visit their Web site: www.stanthony.spps.org.

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