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But how will levy dollars be spent, and who will spend them? (11/01/2010)
By Frances Edstrom

Before you vote on Tuesday, November 2, take a good hard look at what is being asked of you. We are being asked to renew the levy referendum for the Winona area public school district. The current levy will expire after taxes payable in 2011. According to the ballot question, we are being asked to approve property taxes that will provide the school district with $1,550 per student.

But I see a distinct disconnect between what the school district is promising it will do with the tax money and what some of Tuesday’s candidates for school board are promising.

According to the mailing from the school district, “Winona Area Public Schools is in a struggle to stop the decline in enrollment. Although the majority of this decline is due to demographics, some can be attributed to other educational opportunities outside of the public schools.”

That would be parochial and charter schools. Two charter schools were started up as a direct result of Dist. 861 closing Dakota and Ridgeway public elementary schools, and those students and their state aid were lost to Dist. 861. As an alternative to closing Central elementary, which the current school board has voted to do, there is a plan to install a public magnet school in that building to prevent a charter school from being established there, and to offer innovative curriculum in hopes of attracting more students to come to public schools.

But one candidate, Steve Schild, has made it clear he is opposed to the plan, and says “…no one supporting the magnet-at-Central idea has produced any evidence that it would draw enough students from outside the Winona district to make it financially viable. The bottom line is that there just aren’t enough kids to justify having six elementary schools in a district with Winona’s enrollment.” The candidate is suggesting that students be removed from Central, where students have posted good test scores — and move them to schools where the test scores have not met state expectations. That will not enhance neighborhood property values, another suggestion in the district mailing.

The district mailing goes on to say, “Enhancing academic offerings and providing advanced opportunities to high potential learners will greatly increase the district’s ability to retain students. When WAPS retains students, Winona Area Public Schools retains the state aid furthering efforts to maintain financial stability.”

But at least one school board candidate calls an attempt by the public schools to capture more of the students in its attendance area as “stealing” students from the charter and parochial schools. Stacey Mounce Arnold, in a guest editorial in the Winona Daily News, wrote, “No one is gaining students because there are no students to gain. …The competition shouldn’t be focused on ‘stealing other students from other schools.’”

The school district is promising that the levy referendum, if successful, will help the public schools capture more students through “enhanced academic offerings,” but the candidate is saying that is not what will happen.

After Tuesday’s election we will see who is seated on the school board. Are the school board members pro-innovation, pro-neighborhood, or not? Right now, we have no idea what the levy referendum will buy because we don’t yet know which candidates will be seated on the school board and make the spending decisions. We don’t know if we will get enhanced education for the next six years, or just enhanced salary packages as we have seen lately. How can we grant the school district $6 million a year sight unseen?

The levy can be put on the ballot again, when we will know who sits on the school board, and what their agenda is. That will be the time to make a decision on the levy renewal, so the sensible vote on Tuesday is “no.”

Book club suggestions rolling in

Latest book club suggestion from Cynthia: “If you have mystery lovers in your book club, they will like Arnaldur Indridason. He lives in Iceland and his mysteries are set there. They are “bleakly beautiful,” according to the New York Times Book Review. I wish I would have said that, because they are. I think any mystery reader, not only brooding Norwegians, would like them. Vince Flynn got me through last winter, and now Arnaldur Indridason will get me through November.” 


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