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D-11's priorities misdirected 

In the past week, we've fielded some 100 telephone calls and letters expressing distress, amazement, horror and disgust over our refusal to endorse 3J, the District 11 mill-levy override that will appear on Tuesday's ballot. We have been accused of being traitors, of rescinding our support for public education.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As we wrote in last week's editorial: There's no question that our schools need more money, and our decision to oppose this measure is heartwrenching.

But we are deeply concerned about the veracity of the proposed measure.

Bond supporters state that decreasing class size is their top priority, but unfortunately, a vast majority of the money raised will fund computer hardware, software and training. For example, of the $7.5 million expected to be raised during the mill levy's first year, $5.2 million -- or 68 percent -- will finance tech-related projects, while a mere $200,000 -- or just 3 percent -- will be allocated to restore class size, in kindergarten only.

Elementary and high school students will have to wait five long years -- until the 2003-04 academic year -- before additional funds are scheduled to help alleviate their overcrowded classrooms.

Yet the mill-levy phase-in plan is chock-full of cyber items, including $2 million annually to immediately hire CIT's -- on-site instructors in every school who will teach teachers how to better use the computers purchased by the 1996 school-bond money; $130,000 for technology training; $2.9 million for technology support; $200,000 more for "desk technicians" and "network technicians."

By the 2003-04 school year, less than a quarter of the $22 million expected to be raised by the mill levy will be spent on items that we are all fairly sure directly impact the needs of current educators and students -- more teachers, full-day kindergarten programs, less crowded classrooms, art and music instruction for elementary students, up-to-date textbooks, better starting salaries for entry-level teachers.

Some of the mill-levy funds will be used to meet new state-imposed standards, to be measured by standardized multiple-choice tests, thus the term "standards-based" classroom. We understand that the district must abide by some poorly conceived state mandates, but we believe it is a mistake to codify institutionally a system of multiple-choice assessment tests that have little to do with good teaching or quality education. We also abhor the administration's promise to boost test scores by 15 percent or have the district lose money. Such actions will just place further pressure on teachers to teach to the limited content such multiple-choice tests can measure.

When discussing our concerns with the measure's proponents, they've told us that they agree that some of the current scheduled spending priorities may be off-target. But they claim that the D-11 school board could change the spending priorities after the bond is enacted. We believe such reasoning is disingenuous at best. Voters should not be asked to support a flawed proposal with vague promises that needed alterations will be made at some unspecified later date

In 1996, with the Independent's ardent support, voters endorsed the first significant funding increase for D-11 in more than 25 years. At that time, we were told that the funds would be used for "mortar and bricks" -- on capital improvements across the district, including the purchase of about 8,000 computers to bring the district into the technological age.

What District 11 failed to tell us at that time was that funding the computer system would be akin to filling a bottomless pit. We've since learned that while the 1996 bond money paid for computers in every classroom and laptops for every teacher, insufficient funds were allocated to ensure that teachers and students could effectively use the computers the district purchased.

Now we are told that in order to "fully implement the "technology plan" -- a lofty if sterile and vague goal -- we will have to spend additional tens of millions of dollars. Frankly, we'd rather see our money invested in decreasing class sizes, improving teaching conditions and increasing teacher pay, especially for entry-level teachers.

We urge District 11 officials to return next year with a proposal that directly addresses the very real needs of our current students and teachers. Specifically, the new proposal should focus less on technology and multiple-choice testing, and more on tried and true methods of improving schools, especially decreasing class size to less than 25 students per classroom.

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