School District 197 Superintendent Blog
Welcome to my blog! The purpose of the blog is to provide an avenue for communication with parents and community members. I will be sharing our progress in implementing the District Strategic Framework. Periodically I will also post photos and share news of special events that I attend in our schools.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Impact of Unfunded Mandates on School Budgets

On the ballot during the general election on November 8th is a request for voters in District 197 to approve the renewal of a $5.2M annual operating levy. The levy, which was first passed in 2007, expires in 2017.  District 197 is asking voters to extend the levy for another 10 years from 2017 to 2027.

No changes to the existing levy are proposed.  Because the existing levy includes an annual inflationary increase, the value of the dollar is sustained throughout the duration of the levy.  This makes it substantially easier to maintain programs the levy helps to support.

This operating levy provides much needed funding to support basic education programs.  While the state legislature, which provides 71% of our annual operating revenue, has made efforts to increase funding for education, the per pupil amount has not kept pace with inflation.  This is evidenced in the chart below.

In education, we are responsible for many state and federally-mandated programs.  Unfortunately, these programs are not often funded in whole or even in part.  When you combine unfunded mandates with funding that lags behind inflation, revenue has to come from somewhere.

In this blog post, I'd like to provide a few examples of unfunded mandates that have led to budget shortfalls that have, in turn, left school districts in Minnesota heavily dependent on local operating levies.  There are three notable programs that everyone has likely heard about at some point in time.  The first is special education, which carries a federal mandate to meet the individual needs of students with disabilities.  The second is to provide language services for students whose home language is not English.  And the third is programming for gifted and talented students.  These are vital programs for our students.  Yet in none of these three programs do we receive enough state or federal aid to cover the actual costs to deliver the programs as required by law.

Since its passage in 1975, Congress has never fully funded special education.  Nor has the state of Minnesota fully covered its portion. This leaves districts having to cover the gap in funding, which is commonly known as the special education cross subsidy.  In District 197, the cross subsidy for special education is approximately $4M a year, or roughly one-third of special education's $12M annual budget.  We rely on our general fund to cover the $4M that should be coming from the state and federal governments.  As shown in the chart below*, the cross subsidy for schools across Minnesota is staggering, and it is growing.  It is why we consistently lobby the legislature and Congress to fully fund special education.

My second example is how districts are left to fill funding gaps for teaching English to students who are not proficient in English.  To fulfill this mandate, we receive categorical state aid for English instruction for non-native speakers, but it does not cover the actual costs. Our cross-subsidy here is approximately $900,000 per year. Third, while we receive a small amount of funding from the state to support mandated programming for students who are gifted and talented, our cross-subsidy is roughly $250,000 per year.  Combined, these two cross subsidies total over a million dollars a year.

Again, these programs are critically important to ensure the success for all students, and we are committed to providing support and services to our students. There is no question about that.  But as you can see, costs quickly add up.  It is left up to us to fill in the funding gaps at the local level.

I hope I have provided you with helpful information for thinking about the upcoming levy renewal.  You can find out more about our levy by visiting our district website.

In closing, please be sure to vote on November 8th.


Nancy Allen-Mastro

Follow me at Twitter @Supt197

*As published in the Association for Metropolitan School Districts' September 2016 Connections newsletter. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

Levies Are for Learning

In District 197, we are fortunate to have two 10-year operating levies that support learning.  One was passed in 2011; another was passed in 2007.  School District 197 depends on both levies to help pay for the basic learning needs of students, including academic programming, books and supplies, teacher and staff salaries, and other operating expenses.  On November 8th, we will be asking voters to renew the 2007 levy for another 10 years.   Renewing the levy will help us maintain current programs and services and ensure continued support for academic achievement and innovation.

The 2007 levy, which expires in 2017, provides $5.2M in funding above and beyond the basic per pupil aid funding from the state of Minnesota, which is eight percent of our annual general fund operating budget.  This is equivalent to the annual budget to run one of our middle schools.

With these levies, we have been able to invest in our education program in recent years.  We've expanded K-12 music and gifted and talented programming, and we've revamped the middle school schedule to better support fifth and sixth grade students.  We also added deans at the middle schools.  Recently we expanded the number of K-12 school counselors by staffing a full-time counselor at each elementary school and adding counselors at the secondary schools to increase support for career guidance and college planning.

We have also been able to invest in our co-curricular program. For example, in 2014 we joined forces with the cities of West St. Paul and Mendota Heights to renovate and upgrade the John V. Hoene Ice Arena in West St. Paul, extending the facility's life for another 20 years and ensuring home ice for our boys' and girls' hockey programs.

Our levies for learning have ensured a more stable revenue stream for District 197 schools by including an annual inflationary increase based on calculations determined by the Minnesota Department of Education.  The inflationary increase ensures the value of the levy amount remains constant over the duration of the levy period. The inflationary adjustment each year is critical, especially when considering that while the state legislature has increased funding for schools in Minnesota, the increases in the per pupil amount have not kept pace with inflation.  You can see this reflected in the chart below.

Local levies make up for shortages in state aid, plain and simple, because communities want more for their students than what state monies can provide.  Our community is no different.  We want the best for our students.

We also believe we operate our schools resourcefully.  Our community agrees.  In our 2016 annual stakeholder survey conducted by the Morris-Leatherman Company, 92% of respondents stated they feel the community receives a good value for its investment in its public schools.  We also know that the total tax impact on households in District 197 is lower than any of our neighboring districts and those whom we often compare ourselves to in terms of size.  You can see the comparisons in the chart below.

I hope this information is helpful.  I urge you to become further informed.  In addition to direct mailings, we have a variety of information meetings and webinars occurring between now and November.  You can access these dates and other important information on our district website at  I hope to see you soon!


Nancy Allen-Mastro

Follow me on Twitter @Supt197

Friday, September 2, 2016

Come talk with us!

It's back to school, and we're ready! Our buildings and grounds crew have our schools in tip top shape, and teachers returned this week to a full slate of professional development opportunities. It promises to be another outstanding year in District 197.

As the year gets underway, I would like to encourage you to get three important dates on your calendar. Each year, we provide opportunities for our parents and community members to engage in dialogue around our Strategic Framework and the six goals that have been identified by our school board as priorities for growth and development. We do this in a series of three discussions throughout the year that are open to all staff and members of the community.  Anywhere from 50 to 100 people have attended past discussions.

In these community-wide strategy team meetings, we discuss key aspects of select initiatives.  I would like to invite you to three conversations we have planned.  The three dates and related topics are as follows:

September 19, 6:00 - 8:00 p.m.
January 10, 6:00 - 8:00 p.m.
March 16, 6:00 - 8:00 p.m.
Presentation:  Annual World’s Best Workforce Report
Breakout discussions:
  • K-12 math review
  • Parent academy
  • Adaptive curriculum resources
  • Elementary 1:1 rollout
  • TriDistrict Career and College Readiness Initiative
  • Universal preschool design

Topic:  E-12 Required and Elective Offerings
Breakout discussions:
  • What are the essential required courses all students should have in order to graduate career or college ready?
  • What elective courses should be offered to ensure students graduate career or college ready?
  • Designing flexible learning spaces
  • TriDistrict career pathway options
  • Preschool class offerings
Topic:  Personalized Learning Vision

Breakout discussions:

  • Emerging models in District 197
  • Strategic Framework:  Next Steps

As a token of our appreciation, we will provide you with a light supper at 5:00 p.m. prior to the meeting.  Child care and translation services are also provided upon request.  We just need you to sign up so we can plan accordingly for all who will be attending. Simply click here to register.  Although you are welcome to attend one or two meetings, we encourage attendance at all three if possible so that the conversation is ongoing.

I hope you will join us for this unique dialogue with our community.  Gathering a wide range of input into these topics help to ensure we are advancing programs in a way that meets our community’s needs and expectations.  Your presence and input will be greatly appreciated by all.


Nancy Allen-Mastro

Follow me on Twitter @Supt197

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Ensuring our Students are Prepared for the Future of Their Choice

On August 2nd, members of a newly formed Career and College Readiness Steering Committee in District 197 spent the day visiting four local businesses to learn more about the 21st century workplace.  In order to prepare students for the future of their choice, we need to understand the kinds of careers and jobs our students will be entering after they graduate from high school or college. We also need to be aware of the skills employers are counting on us to develop in our students.

Last year, we forged a partnership with the school districts in South St. Paul and Inver Grove Heights to see how we could work together to create opportunities to ensure students graduate career or college ready.  All three districts have articulated this as a goal in their strategic plans. By working collaboratively, we believe we will be able to make it possible for more students to earn college credit or complete industry-standard certifications concurrently while earning a high school diploma.  We call it our TriDistrict Career and College Readiness Initiative, and you will be hearing more about it throughout the coming year.

The business tour was arranged by the Dakota County Regional Chamber of Commerce along with the River Heights Chamber of Commerce.  These two chambers serve our three school districts and have actively supported our efforts to prepare students for careers and college.    

Throughout the day, we toured CHSWaterousThompson Reuters, and Fairview Ridges Hospital.  Each provided insight into their organization, the kinds of jobs they host, and the knowledge, skills, and abilities required to be successful working in their business or industry.  They also shared with us gaps in employee qualifications that they'd like to see improved.

What is it businesses are looking for?  The skills identified were common to all four stops on the tour: the ability to work collaboratively with others, solve problems, think critically, and communicate effectively topped the lists. Employers are also seeking individuals who are motivated and have a strong work ethic.

Thank you to our local businesses and the Dakota County Regional Chamber of Commerce and River Heights Chamber of Commerce for a very productive day! 

District 197 Team at CHS

Follow me on Twitter @Supt197

Thursday, June 9, 2016

High Approval Ratings: A Sweet End to a Terrific School Year

Today is the last day of school for students in District 197.  As an educator, the last day of school always leaves me with mixed feelings.  I am sad to see the students leave.  They bring a purpose and an energy to our schools that is the sole reason we exist.  When they are gone, it feels empty around here.  Yet the end of the year also signals a time for renewal.  We are given a chance to re-energize, re-focus, and re-commit to our mission.  We spend the summer preparing for the coming year, and that, too, is exciting.

We made great strides as a school district this year.  A few highlights are listed below:
  • We opened our new Early Learning and Family Resource Center;
  • Through our EmPowerEd initiative, we successfully took 1:1 computing to scale in our secondary schools;
  • We implemented a new and improved K-8 gifted and talented instructional model;
  • We implemented a wildly successful new writing curriculum in our elementary schools;
  • We launched Naviance, a new career planning tool for students at the secondary level; and
  • More than 100 stakeholders participated in our series of strategy team meetings throughout the year.

At our June school board meeting, we heard the results of our 2016 stakeholder survey, which was conducted in April.  I am proud to say that our district received some of the highest stakeholder satisfaction ratings since beginning the annual survey over a decade ago.  When asked about the quality of our schools, an astounding 91% rated us as excellent or good, up from 78% in 2014. Within that figure, 53% rated us as excellent, up from just 37% in 2014.  

The question of quality is just one of many questions asked in the survey where we earned approval ratings of over 90%.  A second question was in regard to residents' pride in our district schools and if they would recommend them to others.  Here too, the number saying yes went from 77% in 2014 to 93% in 2016.  According to our consultant, the strong results in this survey puts us in the top five school districts in the entire suburban metro area.  If you'd like to hear more, you can view the presentation here (starting at 0:05:30) and download the presentation here.

What our survey callers heard over and over from respondents is that our public likes what they see as an increased emphasis on academic excellence in our district.  I couldn't agree more.  We have upped our game. Our Strategic Framework is providing us with this focus, and our commitment remains strong.  

On behalf of District 197, thank you for your support for our schools.  You are our most important partner, and we couldn't be successful without you.  Whatever your plans for the summer, have fun, be safe, and stay in touch. We look forward to seeing you again in the fall.  


Nancy Allen-Mastro

Follow me on Twitter @Supt197

Friday, May 20, 2016

School Counselors Play an Important Role in Schools

School counselors play an important role in helping students be successful in school, all the way from teaching positive behaviors and bullying prevention to helping out when a student may need additional emotional support. Career guidance is also a critical part of their role, as is assisting other staff in meeting the wide-ranging needs of students. 

On Monday, May 16th, our school board approved administration’s request for a full-time counselor next year at each of our elementary schools, which are currently staffed at .50 FTE (full-time equivalent) per site.  They also approved an additional .50 FTE of counseling at each middle school.  This follows the addition of a full-time counselor at the high school last year.  Our investment in school counselors is in alignment with goals A through D in our Strategic Framework, which are aimed at academic preparedness and career and college readiness.

By the board approving our most recent request, our counselor-to-student ratio will be dramatically reduced from 1:814 at the elementary level to 1:408.  At the middle schools, the additional counselor reduces the ratio from 1:747 to 1:498, resulting in the K-8 ratios being just above the high school ratio of 1:308. This gives our district one of the lowest student-to-counselor ratios in the metro and statewide region, and it puts us below the national average of 1:471.  

From kindergarten to graduation, we want to ensure students' social and emotional development is tended to as much as their academic development.  Doing so makes it possible for them to develop academically and fulfill their potential. We strive to create healthy school cultures where all children feel cared for and experience a sense of belonging.  School counselors are central to this whole-child approach that is both proactive and positive. School counselors also help to ensure our students are provided with excellent career guidance in a day and age when planning for their future has never been more dynamic.

The addition of school counselors could not have come at a better time. This past year, our curriculum department has been working with our school counselors to review and update their classroom curriculum, and we look forward to its implementation next year. Our middle and high school departments also have a new career planning tool to use with students and their families called Naviance, which is a robust online platform for academic planning and career exploration.

If you'd like to find out more about what a school counselor does, visit the American School Counselor Association's website


Nancy Allen-Mastro

Follow me on Twitter @Supt197

Friday, April 22, 2016

Career and College Readiness -

Career and college readiness is a hot topic these days, including here in District 197.  Our Strategic Framework has an emphasis on career and college readiness.  We define it as students possessing the knowledge and skills needed to successfully complete credit-bearing coursework at a two- or four-year college, technical school, or university or to secure employment in a career-track position, which is defined as one that pays a living wage, provides benefits, and offers opportunities for advancement through education and training. 

By 2020, three quarters of all jobs in Minnesota will require some form of post-secondary training beyond high school.  But are students ready, and are they prepared?  Not very, according to a survey conducted by the Youth Truth, a nonprofit organization.  There were three key findings in this survey: students want to go to college but feel unprepared; they feel even less prepared for a career, and they admit they are not taking advantage of support services to prepare them for their future.

I am also concerned that earning a degree or a certification is becoming more difficult due to finances alone.  The cost of a post-secondary education is rising, and as tuition and expenses go up, the number of students from moderate to low-income households who are able to afford to pay goes down.  This results in one of two things: they either don't go to college or they assume significant debt.  

The case is clear: what we do in schools to prepare students for their future matters.  In addition to ensuring strong academic preparation, we need to provide students with ongoing career exploration and planning opportunities.  And it needs to start early.  It's not just about what kids imagine they want to be when they grow up; it is also about developing a set of skills and abilities that we think of as soft skills.

We believe our future in this area lies in collaborating with other institutions to create depth and breadth in regard to what is available to our students.  Over the course of the coming year, you will hear us talk about ways we plan to partner with neighboring school districts, our business community, and several key post-secondary partners.  This process is just beginning to unfold, and I couldn't be more excited about the prospects.

There are many resources for educators, students, and parents that can help you explore this idea of career and college readiness.  Below are a few that I would recommend for those of you who'd like to read on.  I am sure your own online searches will take you even further.

 For now, enjoy this beautiful spring weather!


Nancy Allen-Mastro

Follow me on Twitter @Supt197