Explaining the Levy votes

Much thanks to Robert Berkowitz for this well written explantion of the levy votes in front of us. He has allowed me to share it here.

My family took advantage of early in person voting on a beautiful late fall day today. This off year election is likely one of the most important local elections in my lifetime for our communities. The items in my community that are on the ballot (like most 2021 elections) are public education focused.

I write this very long message as a parent in the Stillwater Area School district. I am a member of this community. I have volunteered in the past with the state champion Stillwater mountain bike team. I am not an employee of the Stillwater School District, however I do work in a leadership position for a different school district. My words today typed on a tiny phone keyboard are mine personally.

The Stillwater school district is seeking an operational levy as well as a technology levy.

Operationally, public education funding comes primarily from state and local funding and much less from federal funding. It has not always been this way, however this is very important as it gives local control of funding. I’m going to guess that statically speaking most of those who may choose to read this are not business owners, but all of us are citizens, consumers, tax payers, and likely employees of some service or industry. The reality of the cost of goods, services, and employee pay increasing at or above the rate of local and regional inflation are and will likely always just be a basic fact. Local operating levy’s ARE the mechanism for public schools to make up the inflationary gaps from state funding that historically HAS NOT been at the level of regional inflation. School districts like Stillwater have made cuts on a pretty predictable cycle to maintain a balanced budget. The largest portion by far in a school districts budget is staff compensation.

If you are in this community, please understand what is actually at stake this year. This is not political. It’s absolutely about preparing students to be amazing, talented, and prepared designers and problem solvers for our community, state, region, country, and world. This extends well beyond our time as voters in our community. This is about supporting one of the top preforming school districts in the state and seeking to advance the pedagogy of teaching so that every student is prepared for current unfilled jobs and those that are yet to exist.

So that leads to the second question on the ballot for Stillwater Area Schools. A technology levy. I do know a little about public education technology from a planning, funding, and operational lens.

Stillwater is one of very few districts in Minnesota without a technology levy. Technology levies are restricted to specific use of funds. Districts without a technology levy use their general fund for technology. The general fund also pays all staff, and most operational things. There are some areas that are restricted and come from funding specifically for them.

So what the heck is technology in public education? I’ll start with the obvious and actually one of the smaller yet not insignificant expenses.

Student devices have been important in preparing our students for the reality of the world and job market looking forward. These devices are simple tools, however they guarantee reliable access for each student in a fleet manageable and serviceable way. The same can be said for staff devices. These devices have their purchase cost or lease and likely a small management license. As curriculum and learning have moved to content as a service models, the cost of education technology software and resources have predictably increased.

The annual cost of all educational and business software is not optional for education (public, private, or corporate) for a school district like Stillwater with no technology levy this comes completely from the general fund. These expenses are items like the student information system (PowerSchool), HR management software, Financial management software, facilities management software, and many others. The systems that I mentioned are much more complex than just mentioning them, however this is already a very long message. Point being, state and federal reporting as well as annual auditing require these systems to be in place and secure..

So let’s talk about security of private and protected student, family, employee information. The relentless attack on public schools data systems are caused by the actual value of this data in the hands of criminals. This is something that needs to be addressed! Public schools are on a journey of catching up very quickly with banking and highly regulated industry. We (this side of St Paul) work very closely between school districts to combat attacks on our networks and data systems.

The cost of a dedicated cyber security team is well outside the budget of public schools, however we are teaming up to stay ahead of the attacks. The tools that we will be implementing come at a cost that we are not use to in public education, yet will not be optional. In Stillwater this comes from the general fund.

Support staff are often the critical juncture point between teachers and students ability to access content. This however is just the tip of the iceberg.

We need to support teachers in their relationship with technology so that they can support and infuse technology skills in the way each student create, communicate, and process learning.

Things like very basic coding at early ages to teach students how to sequence logic like “if then”. These critical foundations directly increase understanding of mathematics. This area of support will be critical to creating opportunities for students that do not yet exist beyond our walls of learning.

Infrastructure, if done well, is an invisible utility. Stillwater Schools maintains fiber optic connections between schools that connect to building core network switches, branch off to closet or area network switches and then to classrooms to connect wireless access points, phones, and educational devices. Each and every one of these items have a lifecycle. Many districts budget for about 6 years on hardware. I do not have the specifics of the Stillwater lifecycle, but I do know what they have in place (it’s the first place I look when I’m in any school). Some of these lifecycles can be stretched out, however there are changing standards such at Wifi 6 that require a newer change in switch ports to go beyond 1gb with SmartRate over UTP. This transition for a school district will require physical structured network cables (ceilings and walls) to be replaced with Category 7 or 8 cabling, network switches replaced, and finally Wifi access points replaced. Projects like this are multi year and take teams to complete. I have no knowledge of when Stillwater Schools will begin this type of lifecycle, however I can say that without a technology levy the funding would be from the general fund with perhaps some federal reimbursement from ERate.

Classroom technology has become part of the standard design of a classroom. From amplification to interactive whiteboards, classrooms with reliable and modern technology are here to stay.

Firewalls, datacenters, disaster recovery, cyber security, cyber awareness training, device repair, video conferencing, broadcast of meetings, staffing, and an endless list that could go on and on and none of it is optional! Without a dedicated technology levy all of these and the things I left out come from the general fund and compete directly with class size, programs, and staffing.

I love public education. We are absolutely reliant on the local community to fund our schools. That is taken very seriously! I will never tell someone how to vote, but I beg of each member of this and every community to please know why and for what the ask for funding is for. Hint it’s for the future of our community. That’s it. Think, ask, and vote.

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