Minnesota voters sign off on school levies at record rate

/ 6 November 2013 / eunice

Kim McGuire, Star Tribune, November 6, 2013 – Nearly nine in 10 Minnesota school districts that asked voters for money on Election Day got it, jump-starting plans for building renovations, computer purchases and security system improvements.

Voters in 50 of 57 districts approved operating levies, an 88 percent passage rate that is the highest ever recorded since the Minnesota School Boards Association started tracking that information in the 1980s. Similarly, voters in 23 out of 26 school districts approved capital bond levies.

“That’s definitely a high rate,” said Greg Abbott, the association’s spokesman. “It’s not what we’re used to seeing.”

Voters in districts where recent ballot questions have failed — Richfield, Stillwater and Osseo, among them — approved measures on Tuesday, signifying a shift in thinking over time.

School leaders couldn’t pinpoint what caused that shift, but say an improved economic climate, past painful budget cuts and parents’ overall desire to see their kids succeed played a role in influencing voters.

“I think voters this year realized that we made all the cuts we could make without impacting the students experience,” said Barb Olson, spokeswoman for the Osseo district. “The cuts would have gone much deeper this time.”

Tuesday’s results come just months after the Minnesota Legislature approved almost $500 million in new education funding, the biggest bump in state aid that schools have received in a decade.

Yet many school leaders argued that the money — much of which will be allocated to pay for all-day kindergarten next year — wouldn’t erase years of underfunding and asked voters for more this week. In all, 77 school districts asked voters for some kind of help, which is still well below the record set in 2011, when 132 districts ran referendums.

“The fact of the matter is, one biennium of funding is not going to make up for the past decade,” said Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. “I honestly believe that people have gotten that message and understand what’s happening in schools today. They don’t want to see any more staffing reductions, or program cuts or increases in fees.”

Abbott pointed out that many of the school districts’ requests this year were for straightforward renewals of expiring operating levies. Others asked for nominal increases that were offset by property tax deductions approved by legislators this year, he said.

In Osseo, voters overwhelmingly approved a request to revoke the current operating levy and replace it with one expected to generate about $9 million more per year over 10 years. For the owner of an average-priced home in the district, that will result in a tax increase of $7 a month once the decrease in other local levies were factored in.

Last year when the district floated the same request, the tax impact was about $14 a month. Voters rejected that measure by just more than 100 votes and the district was forced to make over $3 million in cuts.

“We are certainly feeling very encouraged today,” said Olson, noting that Osseo voters also approved the district’s first-ever technology levy.

Defeat of a big measure

Eden Prairie Public Schools will be facing the kind of cuts that Osseo made last year, officials there said. The west metro district was one of a handful in the state that saw voters reject an operating levy request.

District officials said Wednesday they were unable to say why the operating levy request failed. Eden Prairie schools had asked voters to approve an increase of $993 per pupil, the largest rise among the 57 districts that made operating levy requests.

They said the district will have to cut $4 million from its budget next year.

“After having cut more than $17 million from the district budget in the past 10 years, we had hoped to be able to maintain and build on the programming and opportunities we offer our students,” said Superintendent Curt Tryggestad.

While the district remains committed to maintaining its level of service, he said, “we will have to do what we must to stabilize finances.”

Although Eden Prairie voters shot down the operating levy, they renewed a technology levy that will produce $5.7 million a year.

Hopkins also approved a 10-year capital projects levy that will generate $17 million to pay for things such as classroom technology upgrades, renovating some schools’ kitchens and installing new security devices.

“It was an increase, but Hopkins parents have never failed a referendum,” said Dave Koppe, who helped lead efforts to pass the request. “Parents in Hopkins care very much about education and that’s what matters.”

Mankato voters on Tuesday approved the largest capital bond levy in the state — almost $69.5 million to pay for the construction of a new middle school, another middle school addition, a junior/high school renovation and the expansion of a high school cafeteria.

“When I talk to our community members, it’s clear to me that they want our schools to stay strong,” said Superintendent Sheri Allen. “And that’s the commitment they’ve made to us.”