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Endorsements: Stone, Wetterlin, and Laube for District 112 School Board

As a parent, I have struggled with the district’s rollout of standards-based grading and Empower. I wondered if I was alone, so I talked to some other parents, and discovered I wasn’t. Together, we started a group called Even Better Eastern Carver County Schools, devoted to making out schools, well, even better than they are today. Last spring, we did a survey that discovered that large numbers of parents (nearly half, in fact) were also struggling with Empower and standards-based grading.

Also last spring, students at Chanhassen and Chaska high schools organized to complain about their concerns with the rollout of personalized learning and Empower.

Finally, the district’s own community survey last year found that questions related to standards-based grading and Empower were (by far) the lowest scoring questions.

Three points of feedback from three different sources. All pointing in the same direction: there’s something wrong with how the district is rolling out standards-based grading and Empower. What has the response been?

Sadly, it’s been incremental changes only. Yes, there is some new functionality in Empower that is helpful. No, it’s still not “good”. Not even close.

Also sadly, the current school board does not appear to be sufficiently engaged in solving this problem. The system is blinking red, but no one is taking action. I’ve watched the meetings, and the only significant discussion on these issues took place in July, far too late to respond to what happened last year and make the sort of changes required for this year.

We need to step back, take a fresh look at the rollout approach and be prepared to fundamentally change directions. To do so, the School Board and district leadership are going to have to break out of their dependence on self-selected task forces and seek broader input from the community. None of the incumbent school board members have expressed a willingness to do what is needed to bring this process back to where it needs to be.

Fortunately, we have three qualified challengers who can bring a fresh set of eyes and new perspectives to our School Board.

Jenny Stone is a former District 112 teacher who left in part because of the district’s approach on some of these issues. Her performance at the League of Women Voters forum demonstrated a complete understanding of the sort of issues the Board will face over the next four years.

Delane Wetterlin is a former district employee who worked for years in our schools and understands what’s going on both in the classroom and behind-the-scenes. She is concerned about how we are measuring progress under standards-based grading, and vows to make improvements.

Cecilia Laube is the head of the district’s Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC) and as a Chilean immigrant, she would provide a voice for diverse populations that is missing on the Board today.

All three of these candidates have prioritized improving school district communication as well, which is another area of serious concern.

And what about the fourth spot on the ballot? If you’re picking among the incumbents, I would urge a vote for either Fred Berg or Tim Klein. Berg is a retired teacher who could stand to regain some of the skeptical nature he showed before joining the Board eight years ago. Klein has shown a keen analytical eye, particularly on fiscal matters, that he should apply more critically to the issues discussed above.

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A balancing act for District 112?

The Eastern Carver County School District (District 112) has put its E-8 and high school facility task forces on hold until fall, as the two groups wait for a refresh on demographic projections for the next decade.  A faster than expected recovery in residential construction as well as the Legislature’s recent approval of all-day kindergarten for all students may spark discussions of new facilities earlier than anticipated.

While specific decisions on boundaries and possible new school construction will now wait until 2014, the issues the task forces were wrestling with remain.  On the elementary school level, a permanent home needs to be found for La Academia (the District’s rapidly growing Spanish immersion program) and the Family Learning Center, overcrowding in the three western schools (Victoria, Clover Ridge, and East Union) has to be addressed, and a likely shortage in kindergarten rooms resulting from the Legislature’s approval of all-day kindergarten must be resolved.  At this level, the issues boil down to a numbers game — finding a way to make sure that there is sufficient building capacity to meet enrollment and then drawing boundaries in a way that make the most sense for the District as a whole.

On the high school level, the issue is more difficult and more philosophical.  There’s enough capacity in both high schools to last the District for the next decade.  Chanhassen High School has (and is projected to continue to have) higher enrollment than Chaska High School by 200-300 students and Chaska High’s population is significantly more diverse (on a percentage basis, there are nearly three times as many non-white students and students receiving free or reduced lunches compared to Chanhassen High).

Although the Chanhassen facility is newer, the two schools now essentially provide the same amenities, with the exception of a “black box” theater, after the District has invested nearly $3 million in renovations to Chaska High since 2011.

The feeder system for the two high schools is based strictly on city lines — something that was strongly promoted by city leaders in both Chanhassen and Chaska and is easy to explain and understand.  Could this change?  Well, it’s possible.  The unbalanced enrollment and demographics between the two high schools is an issue which some feel should be addressed.  Does drawing boundary lines based on city limits do the best service to all of the children served by the District?

How could things change?  Well, some have suggested moving away from city boundaries for the high schools and moving to an elementary-school based feeder program (3 or 4 elementary schools could be designated to feed into each high school).  Other thoughts on balancing include using different geographical boundaries to split the District among the two high schools.  But there’s also plenty of folks who would favor keeping things just as they are today.

What do you think?  Take the polls below, and leave your thoughts in the comments.

Survey says: District 112 evaluates referendum options

The Eastern Carver County School District (District 112) School Board has begun weighing potential referendum questions for this fall’s ballot.  This would be the first ballot question since 2011’s failed technology levy, as the District passed on putting any questions on the 2012 ballot.

It’s a virtual certainty that there will be one referendum question on the ballot, as two operating levies representing $8.7 million in annual funding (or just under 10% of the District’s general fund) expire after the 2013-14 school year, meaning that they must be extended this year, or significant cuts would be required.

But it’s the potential for other questions is where it gets interesting.  As noted in this week’s Chaska Herald, the District has surveyed residents on a number of possible referendums in recent months, including:

  • A $2.3 million technology levy (54% support/strongly support in the survey)
  • School security facility improvements (64%)
  • Dedicated facility for early childhood education (55%)
  • Purchase land for a new elementary school in Chaska or Carver (46%)
  • New swimming pool (38%)
  • Theater facility at Chaska High School (38%)
  • Construction of a domed athletic facility (38%)
  • New soccer/lacrosse fields (28%)

The last four items on the above list are dead on arrival.  And, despite the favorable survey results for the technology levy, going back to that well again may not prove to be wise.  That leaves us with three items for consideration, and let’s look at the case for and against each of them:

School security facility improvements:  FOR: These changes would largely update some of the older schools in the District to reconfigure and update entrances and other security features.  An example of such a change would be at Jonathan Elementary, where the front entrance of the school would be changed to funnel visitors through the office instead of into the school’s main floor hallway. AGAINST: Since Newtown, District schools have made staffing adjustments as required to help monitor entrances that are antiquated in their design.  Could these processes be continued less expensively than making facility upgrades?

Dedicated facility for early childhood education:  FOR:  Today, early childhood programs are spread across multiple facilities in the District (including Chaska High School and Bluff Creek and Chanhassen Elementary Schools).  The District’s E-8 Task Force has been looking at different options for siting early childhood programs, but the enrollment crunch at the elementary schools and the possible changes in high school boundaries puts these programs in the lurch.  A dedicated facility would provide stability for these programs, which could increase utilization and improve efficiency (staff today frequently has to travel between buildings). AGAINST:  Having multiple locations for early childhood programs can also be an advantage, as it can also drive enrollment.  A Chanhassen resident, for instance, may not be interested in driving their child westward in the morning to a centralized facility but could take advantage of programs currently in Chanhassen elementary schools.  Also, if a new elementary school is built, might existing space (like the Kindergarten Center) be adapted instead?  This is also a potentially expensive project, depending on location and size.

Purchase land for a new elementary school in Chaska or Carver:  A new elementary school in the western portion of the District is inevitable at this point, based on the sudden burst of new residential development in Southwest Chaska, Carver, and Victoria this year as well as legislative actions like the move to universal all-day kindergarten.  And while the District can likely muddle along with the current facilities for three to five more years, the right time to buy land for a new school may be now.  Why?  Historically low interest rates and low property values.  Waiting to buy the land until the school must be constructed could cost District taxpayers millions in increased expense and interest.  It’s also fairly standard practice to secure land before securing the funding for construction, so as not to be delayed when you actually do need to build the school.  For instance, the District acquired the future Chanhassen High School property via a levy passed in 2004 — five years and an additional referendum before the building was built and opened.  AGAINST:  Why spend a significant amount of money on buying land until it is absolutely necessary to do so?

It’s unlikely, of course, that District would put all three of these items on the ballot in addition to the operating levy renewal.  How should the School Board and Superintendent Jim Bauck proceed, then?

The reality is that none of the referendum questions is likely to succeed without a coordinated and coherent presentation of the facts behind the need for the referendum.  The District failed on that count with the 2011 technology levy.  From that perspective, the security upgrades have the easiest story to sell.

But if we’re truly interested in financial responsibility, the notion of buying land for the new elementary school needs to be on the table as well.  Being able to acquire land now at favorable terms makes sense, since we know that the school will need to be constructed at some point in the short- to medium-term.

Past School Boards have been very cautious about putting referendum questions on the ballot, even those that do show majority support.  Even though the concept of buying land for a new elementary school shows mixed support in the survey, it may well be the right thing to do.  And the District should fight for doing the right thing by its citizens and taxpayers.

[Photo is Family Feud host Richard Dawson, from back in the day.]

To the Woodshed We Go

 

Sometimes, it’s not just the weather that makes you cranky.  Sometimes, it’s the politicians that drive you nuts.  Let’s take some folks out to the woodshed for some well-deserved constructive criticism.

Legislative Republicans:  For Digging the Hole Even Deeper

A few days ago, we talked about how Legislative Republicans were engaging in some rather remarkable rhetoric about the state budget — and that their promises were unlikely to add up unless they introduced substantial cuts to all areas of the budget outside of K-12 education and health and human services.  Well, yesterday, it got worse.  House DFLers introduced their K-12 education bill, and Republicans (Rep. Kelby Woodard again) added to their audacious promises.  Already faced with the prospect of coming up with nearly $1.5 billion in cuts, Woodard signed the GOP up for a 2% increase in the basic formula ($300 million) and fixing the special education funding gap (another $475 million on top of the DFL proposal).  Doing all of what Woodard and the GOP claim can be done with “existing resources” would now take over $2 billion in cuts to other areas of the budget, or nearly a 20% across-the-board cut.  Again, remember these numbers the next time a Republican legislator bloviates about how everything can be done with “existing resources” without offering any details of how they would make it happen.

Governor Mark Dayton and House DFLers:  For Bonding Bills That Need Some Changes

This week, Governor Mark Dayton and the House DFL caucus released their proposals for odd-year bonding packages.  Such requests are somewhat uncommon, as bonding is usually done in even years only, although additional bonding has become a frequent point of negotiation during budget stalemates in recent years.  While I agree with DFL logic that we should take advantage of low interest rates to invest in infrastructure, an odd-year bonding package should imply that we’re doing some special things here.  Too much of both proposals is taken up with the same old local projects (many of which have been already rejected in previous cycles), which can easily wait for inclusion in the usual even-year bonding package.  The House bill has some stronger elements to it — particularly its increased emphasis on transportation and higher education projects.

It’s also inconceivable to me that you can have two $800 million bonding bills, none of which make any commitment to the Mayo Clinic “Destination Medical Center” proposal.  As a state, we have an opportunity to support nearly $6 billion in private investment in the state with a maximum of $585 million in infrastructure improvements.  We should be jumping at this opportunity to help create thousands of long-term, good-paying jobs in Southern Minnesota by including a substantial investment towards this project (between $75 and $150 million as called for in the stand-alone legislation).

I’d like to see a more focused bonding bill that focuses on transportation, higher education, State Capitol renovation, and the Mayo project — less expensive and more appropriate for an odd-year bonding package.

While we’re at it, let’s also deliver a kick-in-the-pants to the Democratic majorities in the Legislature for the leisurely pace of their budget bills so far.  Last session, the Republican majorities had already passed through the first version of all the budget proposals by this point (to be fair, they then languished for a long time in conference committee before coming back for final approval).  It’s time to shift the budget process into a higher gear, folks.

Minnesota Vikings Stadium Supporters:  For Not Facing Reality

Here’s another issue where on the merits, Governor Mark Dayton and other Minnesota Vikings stadium supporters are right.  In the whole scheme of things, the shortfall in e-pulltab revenues is a problem, but not a crisis.  And stadium opponents are indeed grandstanding (here’s looking at you, Sen. Sean Nienow).  But, guess what?  This problem was foreseeable at the start — maybe not to this extent — but it was hardly a secret that there were serious concerns over the revenue projections.  If you want to shut Nienow and the like up, the answer is simple:  fix the bill and put in place a better backup plan.  Trying to wait this thing out in the hopes the revenue situation will improve is only going to make this issue grow and grow and grow.

It would also help matters if the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Sports Facilities, which will have oversight of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority budget was more balanced from an ideological perspective.  Of the 12 members, 10 voted for the stadium bill, one voted against (Rep. Jim Davnie) and one is a freshman (Sen. Karin Housley).  Having some legislators with a more skeptical eye would be useful to the process.

Carver County GOP:  For Wallowing in Sleaze and Extremism

Our good friends over at the Carver County GOP have taken to the Twitter.  So far, they’ve managed to find links to just about every cheap and baseless conspiracy theory out there.  Here are a few examples:

One would have thought that official Republican party bodies would have given up birtherism and bogus voter fraud nonsense by now, but I guess not.  But if tinfoil hats are your thing, you should follow them.

GOP’s phony baloney budget math

Two weeks ago, DFL leaders in the House and Senate released their budget targets, and we should be seeing the specific budget bills in each area shortly (in fact, they are overdue at this point).  Like Governor Mark Dayton’s budget proposal, the legislative budgets each total around $38 billion.

The House budget prioritizes paying back the school shift (accomplished with a blink-on income tax surcharge on top of the new fourth bracket for high-income earners) and property tax relief (an additional $250 million in local government aid).

The Senate budget, like the Governor’s, leaves the school shift untouched — which would keep the current law of any surpluses going to pay down the shift — and prioritizes property tax relief and economic development.

Both legislative budgets contained a surprise, though, as they each sliced $150 million from the forecast spending in health and human services.  Coming after a $1.2 billion cut in the last budget cycle and Dayton’s proposal to raise HHS spending by $128 million, it was a shock to many — including Republicans who have criticized those cuts.

There’s only one part of government where people could die and that’s in our area where the people with disabilities and health care and rural hospitals. I was just really surprised. Nobody saw that coming. — Rep. Jim Abeler (R-Anoka)

While politically convenient to attack DFL cuts to HHS, it makes the budget math for Republicans that much harder.  Republicans have rhetorically committed themselves towards paying back the school shift this session.

We should pay the entire shift back right now. – Rep. Kelby Woodard (R-Belle Plaine)

Before any changes to current law, the state finds itself with a $627 million deficit.  The remaining school shift is $850 million.  That’s a total of $1.477 billion that has to be found — without raising taxes.  Yet, Republicans have boxed themselves in by essentially taking K-12 and HHS off the table.  Those two areas of the budget represent $26.5 billion of the $36.7 billion in forecast spending for the next biennium.

Which means that those remaining areas of the budget would face the equivalent of a 12.5% across the board cut in order to balance the budget.  That includes higher education, public safety, transportation, economic development, and veterans programs.  Some of these programs have already taken severe cuts in previous budget cycles.

Does that sound sustainable or realistic?  Of course not.

But since Republicans are refusing to put forward their own budget proposal, they are attempting to fly free on their phony baloney budget assertions that we can hold taxes steady and cut our way to prosperity.  And they’re trying to avoid having to answer for the cuts that would be required to make their budget math add up.

So the next time your local Republican legislator tries to pass off that spin, ask them for the details of how they make the math work.  Just don’t hold your breath waiting for an answer.

[Picture is of Rep. Kelby Woodard]

Looking for a Republican suburban woman and other thoughts

MinnPost ran a story last week on prospective GOP candidates for Governor.  Of note in that story was a quote from prominent Republican operative Ben Golnik lamenting the fact that “the ideal candidate — a female from the suburbs” wasn’t out there.  As such, I found it interesting that the name of State Senator Julianne Ortman didn’t come up.  Ortman’s resume — in the Senate over a decade, former Deputy Majority Leader, a caucus leader on tax and legal issues — stacks up comparably against many of the other named contenders.  And she’s one of the Senate GOP’s better communicators, as evidenced by her continuing high profile despite not holding a formal leadership position anymore.

I have no idea if Ortman is interested in higher office — perhaps she’s signaled she’s not, which is why she didn’t make this piece.  But it seems that for many, the list of women available for statewide runs in the Minnesota Republican Party ends with Laura Brod now that Amy Koch is out of the Senate.

Given that the current list of prospective candidates all have significant question marks as it relates to their ability to either earn the Republican endorsement or win a general election — Sen. Dave Thompson might be too conservative for a statewide election, Rep. Kurt Zellers was widely criticized for his leadership (or lack thereof) last session as Speaker of the House, Sen. David Hann was an also-ran in the 2010 race for Governor, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek has perhaps spent too much time on gun issues for the base’s liking, and Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson has already lost one statewide race (Attorney General in 2006) — it seems maybe the list of usual suspects should be expanded.  But, of course, I doubt the Republicans are looking to me for advice.

Here are some other things happening in the community:

  • In case you haven’t already heard, two new restaurants opened in Chaska in the last week or so:  BullChicks in Chaska Commons, and Egg & Pie Diner in downtown.  I’m hearing positive word-of-mouth on both.
  • The two facility taskforces convened by the Eastern Carver County School District continue to make progress.  The High School taskforce is wrestling with the question of balancing programming and demographics between Chaska and Chanhassen High Schools.  Meanwhile, the Early Childhood through Middle School task force is working on finding the best way to deal with overcrowded schools on the west side of the District as well as finding a permanent home for the La Academia Spanish immersion program.  I am a member of the Early Childhood through Middle School task force  and I can attest to the difficult challenges that lie ahead here.  Over the next few months, there will be opportunities for public input on potential changes — I encourage you to keep your eyes open and attend those sessions when they occur.

Dayton rolls out revised budget plan

Governor Mark Dayton rolled out his revised budget plan today, reflecting adjustments required after the February forecast trimmed the projected 2014-2015 budget deficit from $1.1 billion to $627 million.

Here are the key changes in the proposal compared to Dayton’s original budget:

  • All sales tax reform is removed from the budget:  no business sales tax expansion, no expansion of consumer sales taxes to services, and no reduction in the sales tax rate.
  • The $500 property tax refund has been removed, although Dayton does invest an additional $18 million in increasing the pool for the renter’s property tax refund.
  • The cut in the corporate income tax rate has been removed, but changes to eliminate tax breaks for foreign operating companies and foreign royalty payments remain in the budget, raising about $370 million.
  • The proposed school shift payback in 2016-2017 has been removed from the budget.  Dayton would continue with current law, paying back the remaining shift as surpluses come in.

Dayton’s spending plan remains essentially unchanged from his original proposal.

Legislative reaction fell as expected along party lines.  Democrats, many of whom were wary of Dayton’s business sales tax proposals, were more positive about this budget.

“For too long we have seen our budget deficits resolved by deep cuts to the middle class and one-time fixes,” said House Speaker Paul Thissen. “That approach has only given us more deficits, higher property taxes, and larger classroom sizes. It is high time we reject the status quo and build a budget that positions our state to thrive in the future.” (via kare11.com)

One point of contention among DFLers is likely to be Dayton’s failure to address the school shift.  Expect a DFL legislative budget that includes a partial shift payback.

Republicans, meanwhile, continue to call for the budget deficit to be closed by reducing spending.

“I think it’s time for the people of Minnesota to weigh in on all of the taxes and just ask the question, do you need high taxes to grow the economy? We don’t believe so,” said Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R- Eden Prairie. (via MPR)

GOP legislators have yet to introduce a budget proposal of their own, continuing a regrettable trend of legislative minorities choosing to complain from the sidelines instead of producing something that can be matched up side-by-side.

Hawks and Storm jump to newly formed Metro West Conference

District 112’s athletic and activities programs will jump to the newly formed Metro West Conference, which will begin play in the fall of 2014.  Chanhassen and Chaska High School will join Bloomington Kennedy, Bloomington Jefferson, Robbinsdale Cooper, St. Louis Park, and Richfield in the new conference.

The new conference will provide the Hawks and Storm with opponents closer geographically, similar in enrollment, and many of them (like the Bloomington schools and Robbinsdale Cooper) are multi-high school districts.

Chaska and Chanhassen both leave the Missota Conference, which will also lose Shakopee and Farmington at that time as well (both of those schools are moving to South Suburban, effectively taking the place of Bloomington schools).  The Missota will be down to four schools at that time, and if it fails to add more schools it will be broken up by the Minnesota State High School League.

Creation of the new conference has been rumored for quite some time, as District 112 ran into significant opposition from schools in the Missota over issues like the combined girls hockey program.

You can read the full press release on the District 112 website.

Chaska High School on lockdown after threat [UPDATED]

A threat received this morning has prompted Chaska High School to go into lockdown.  Students and staff that were in the building are being kept there.  Buses were diverted to Pioneer Ridge Middle School, which has also been placed on lockdown as a precaution.  CHS students and staff not at school are being encouraged to stay at home until the all-clear is given.  No injuries or unusual activity have been reported.  All students at CHS and PRMS are safe.

For continuing updates, follow these links:

Chaska High School website

Chaska High School Twitter feed

Pioneer Ridge Middle School website

[UPDATE, 10 a.m.]:  All Eastern Carver County schools are in external lockdown, meaning all doors are locked and no visitors are being allowed.

[UPDATE, 10:15 a.m.]:  Per the District’s Facebook page, external lockdown will be lifted for other Eastern Carver County district schools at noon.

[UPDATE, 10:30 a.m.]:  Several CHS parents have reported receiving e-mails indicating that the school will be closed for the day, and students inside the school will be released around 10:45.

[UPDATE, 10:45 a.m.]:  All after-school activities will go on as scheduled.  The Family Learning Center is closed for the day.

[UPDATE, 1:15 p.m.]:  The District’s webpage indicates that the Chaska police has cleared the building and it is free of threats.

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