Back-to-School Night: Voters Fund Most Referendums


It was a generally positive night for levy referendums around the state, with 67 of the 99 school districts getting approval for at least some of their requests. Some school districts, like Burnsville-Eagan-Savage and Anoka-Hennepin, avoided potentially draconian cuts, while others, like Brooklyn Center and Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City, may end up having to shutter schools.

“It was a huge improvement over last year,” said Greg Abbott, spokesperson for the Minnesota School Boards Association (MSBA). “With two-thirds of them passing, I think they did fairly well, but it’s still a bit of a mixed bag.”
Jeff Fecke :: Back-to-School Night: Voters Fund Most Referendums
Abbott noted that St. Louis County schools, which voted down its levy, would be facing serious cuts next year.

“They received a 1 percent increase in state funding, and that district is so large that the increasing cost of gasoline alone is going to exceed that,” he said. Abbott also pointed to failed referendums in McLeod West and Grand Meadow as cause for concern.

“If you rely on the operating levies, you set up the state for huge inequities,” he said. “The ones that can pass it do fine, and the ones that don’t, have huge cuts.”

David Strom, president of the Minnesota Free Market Institute, said that he thought the referendums that failed went down due to “high-stakes” campaigning by districts.

“The communication skills of districts have on the whole been pretty horrible,” Strom said. “I think that the message the school superintendents need to be taking out of this is that they really need to be looking at a new way to communicate with people.”

Strom cited Spring Lake Park’s successful spring bond referendum as a model for how to win support.

“[The superintendent] opened up the books, he brought in community members, brought in people from the vote-no campaigns and asked them for suggestions. I thought he did everything right, and as a result, he got an overwhelming vote of approval,” Strom said.

Some Positives for Districts

While schools didn’t get everything they wanted, most districts were generally pleased with the results. In Stillwater, where a heated referendum battle led to personal attacks on a weblog and allegations of sign-stealing from both sides, only one of three proposed referendums passed. The current levy was reauthorized for 10 years, continuing $10 million per year in funding. But voters chose not to add an additional $4 million a year in spending for the district.

The Anoka-Hennepin school district passed half of the questions on its ballot. Residents agreed to renew the current levy at $29 million per year over the next five years and added an additional $15 million in funding. The vote staved off likely school closings and teacher layoffs. However, voters declined to pass a $6 million per year referendum to reduce activity fees and restore funding that had been cut for transportation and athletic facilities. Voters also rejected a bonding referendum to improve school technology.

“Personally, I am just ecstatic that Questions 1 and 2 passed so we can continue to operate the portfolio of programs we have for students for the next five years,” said Anoka-Hennepin School Board Chair Michael Sullivan in a statement. But he expressed disappointment that the additional requests for funding failed.

“The technology issue is a tough one, because despite the fact that it is integrated so completely into our society, there are still some who see it as a luxury rather than a necessity,” he said. “We will need to find a way to fund it.”

The Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school district also passed their referendum, adding $6.8 million to hire new teachers and reduce class sizes. The district had said it would have to close an elementary school, most likely Gideon Pond Elementary, had the referendum not passed. Administrators were pleased with the vote, and in a letter to district residents, the school board said, “This levy will provide financial stability that will allow us to reduce class sizes, beginning with the next school year. “

White Bear Lake easily passed an $11.7 million per year referendum. The district had said that at least five schools in the district would have to close if the referendum failed. Bloomington also renewed its levy, which will help avoid $5.2 million in cuts for the 2008-09 school year.

Notable Failures

Brooklyn Center schools rejected their fifth consecutive levy referendum, which will almost certainly lead to cuts in staffing, according to school superintendent Keith Lester. In an interview with Minnesota Monitor, Lester said cuts would almost certainly happen “unless the legislature convenes and looks around and realizes that not all districts are created equal.”

Brooklyn Center schools have 70 percent of students under the poverty line, making it hard for the district to maintain adequate revenues. “I think the legislature is going to have to acknowledge that levy referendums were never supposed to be a stable source of funding,” Lester said. But he said the district would go forward as best they could.

“We can live in the past, or we can live in the present and the future,” he said.

Prior Lake-Savage rejected their referendum, possibly delaying the opening of a newly constructed elementary school.

The district has previously stated that it could not afford to open the school without additional funding. Voters also voted down a proposed addition to Prior Lake High School.

Elk River rejected both a levy and a bond referendum, which will forestall building a new high school in Zimmerman.

System ‘Not Working’

MSBA spokesperson Abbott said that despite most districts passing their referendums, there was still a need for change.

“I think it’s pretty easy to say that the system they have now is not working,” he said. He expressed hope that a legislative panel created to look at school funding could help improve the system.

“The way to have the funding equitable for all students is to have the state step up and pay for it,” he said. “I think at the least, the legislative panel that formed could go a long way toward laying the groundwork, so that when the funding cycle comes around in 2009, all that will be in place.”

Brooklyn Center’s Lester agreed.

“If the voters are mad at the feds and the state and the county and the city on taxes, the only way to get back is to vote ‘no’ on a levy referendum, because that’s the only one they get a vote on,” he said. “I think the best system would be to have the state fund it.”

Strom, meanwhile, said the districts simply need to communicate better with their constituents.

“What they ought to be doing is meeting with local community leaders, and actually share all the information and take input,” he said.