Neighbors organize against Obama school’s spendy sign amid cuts and crumbling infrastructure

ST. PAUL, MN—There’s change on the way for those living near the newly renamed Barack and Michelle Obama Service Learning Elementary School in St. Paul, but not the kind of change many residents here appear to believe in.

“I’m a Paul Wellstone liberal and I think this is totally ridiculous,” Lisa Morgan said. “There are so many better ways to spend that money in that school like repairing the school steps or fixing the fence. There are a million things they could do for that school and that’s not it.”

While the St. Paul school board raised eyebrows upon becoming one of the first districts in the country to rename a school for the new president last year, opponents say politics has nothing to do with the current controversy.

It has everything to do with the imposing size, cost and aesthetic impact of a flashy electronic sign St. Paul school officials plan to install out front of the Barack and Michelle Obama Service Learning Elementary School.

“This sign would be right in our faces 24/7,” said Phil LaRose, who lives in a building on the National Register of Historic Places. “It would be lit most of the time we’d be up and around.”

At a time when the St. Paul school district faces a budget shortfall of $27 million and hundreds of probable teacher and staff cuts, critics say spending nearly $28,000 on a supersized electronic sign and bulletin board sends the wrong message.

The Obama elementary school already features the president and first lady’s names on a large new burnished steel sign over the school entrance. School district officials, however, say an electronic sign would communicate important activities and establish a presence—a big presence.

“One of the other things I would point out is that we did a facilities study and one of the deficiencies identified was signage,” said Howie Padilla, communications director for St. Paul schools. “That goes to the idea of why the signs and why the timing now.”

School officials first proposed a code-busting sign more than seven and a half feet high with 36 ½ square feet of space and an illuminated message board.
“A 7 foot sign with scrolling LED display? When the stairs are crumbling? Seriously?,” Lisa Morgan wrote in her blog. “I won’t vote for another property tax increase. I’ll even fight against the next one if the sign initiative goes through.

There’s also been confusion over the sign’s cost with estimates ranging from $10,000 to $30,000, according to accounts in the Villager, a community paper covering the issue. School officials now set the cost of the Obama sign at $27,965. The St. Paul school board has tapped capital improvement budget funds to pay for the Obama school sign and six others at a total cost of $182,000.

“Whenever you hear budget shortfall all the time, maybe people think money is coming out of the same pocket,” Padilla said. “I certainly appreciate where it can be confusing…but indeed it is a different pot of money.”

Residents submitted three petitions opposing the electronic sign, which they also contend would be out of place aesthetically in their Victorian neighborhood. Phil LaRose collected 53 signatures on his petition alone, but says he’s no community organizer.

“I’m a concerned citizen, a taxpayer! Please don’t call me a community organizer,” LaRose said. “I would say most of the residents of our condo building are liberal and 95 percent of them are opposed to the signs. It’s not political ideology. It’s just that it’s insane.”

Over the objections of many residents, the city zoning appeals board granted a zoning variance for a sign almost six feet high and 32 square feet of total space. The lights would be shut off between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. Padilla said a final decision on installing the Obama school sign is pending.

Enrollment at Barack and Michelle Obama Service Learning Elementary School has declined from 865 students in 2005-06 to 572 students for the 2009-10 school year.



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