Winona Area Public Schools spends more money per student, has smaller class sizes, and higher average teacher salaries than any other district in the Big Nine. In 2007-2008, WAPS spent $10,320 per student. The other schools in the conference spent between $8,400 and $9,400 in that time period. Winona’s teacher/student ratio is 17-1. In a comparison to Big Nine schools and nine other districts of similar size around the state, the closest to Winona’s was a ratio of 19-1, with most of the 18 schools coming in at 21-1 or above. The average WAPS teacher salary is the highest in the Big Nine at $52,118. Compare this to the average salary in the Rochester system, $49,100.
What has made this possible is the levy override referendum passed in 2005, a property tax increase set to expire at the end of 2011. On Tuesday’s ballot we can vote to extend this levy through 2017 or let it expire. It provides the Winona district with the maximum allowable under state law, $1,550 per pupil, more than twice the amount some other Big Nine schools collect, which ranges between $400 and $800.
Winona leads the pack in spending. So what is the return on that investment? According to state report cards for 2008-2009, the most recent available, WAPS students were 37% not proficient in math and 35% not proficient in reading. The only Big Nine district with worse numbers was Faribault where those percentages were 41 and 36, respectively. The only other school with worse marks in reading was Albert Lea at 38% not proficient. And it is not true, as some claim, that Winona’s percentages of at-risk students – those in special ed, with limited English, or eligible for free or reduced lunch – is out of line with the rest of the Big Nine.
These figures make it clear that educational outcomes are not tied directly to money spent, or that better education is necessarily purchased with more money. In fact, all the additional spending seems to buy here in Winona is better paid teachers teaching fewer students whose achievement is not on par with the rest of the Big Nine.
Everyone knows that times are tough and that the average citizen is working fewer hours, (many not at all), and making less money. Now would be the time to return at least some of the 2005 tax increase to the beleaguered taxpayers of the Winona district. There is no reason to vote all or nothing on this issue next Tuesday. The override does not expire till after next year’s elections. Let WAPS sharpen its pencil and come back then with a more reasonable number, in line with the rest of the Big Nine, and I think it can get a majority of the voters to say “yes.”