Starved by legislature, public schools turn to voters on November 8

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About one-third of the state’s public school districts will be seeking voter support for school levy questions on the Tuesday, November 8 ballot.

School advocates say the state legislature’s failure to adequately fund K-12 education gives local school districts little choice but to turn to levies tapping local property taxpayers’ wallets.

And, because some levies pass and some levies fail, that means the needs of students in some districts will be met, while student needs in other districts will go wanting.

“These are basic, essential levies that are needed to run the schools,” said Paul Mueller, vice president of Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union. Mueller is a high school teacher in the Brooklyn Center school district.

He also serves on the executive board of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, which will be targeting selected school levies to help win voter approval.

Mueller noted that his Brooklyn Center school district has voted down eight levies in recent years.

He doesn’t fault voters during these challenging economic times, however.. The blame, he said, lies with the legislature: “The funding stream from the state of Minnesota is absolutely broken.”

According to a recent Minnesota 2020 survey of Minnesota school district superintendents, 93 percent of those surveyed believe the current system is not working.

The Minnesota State Constitution, Article 13, Section 1 reads, “…it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools” and “the legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.”

State aid to schools, while increasing by some measures, has not kept up with inflation. “We have 14 percent less to spend on our students than we did in 2003,” Mueller said, citing recent studies.

Some districts suffer from outdated textbooks, overcrowded classrooms, technology that is behind the times. Districts that have made up the gap in state funding with local levies are faring better.

“Your personal zip code should not be determining the opportunities your child has when they go in those school room doors,” Mueller said. “Unfortunately, that’s what’s happening.”

Anoka-Hennepin schools: Three levy questions

Voters in the Anoka-Hennepin school district will find three levy questions on the ballot.  Julie Blaha, math teacher and president of Anoka-Hennepin Education Minnesota, summarized the three questions:

“Question #1 would prevent layoffs to more than 500 teachers and 700 staff altogether,” she said. This question renews a current levy, she noted, so “if it passes, people won’t see an increase in their property taxes.”

“Question #2 would help us be more productive and efficient by updating our technology,” Blaha said. She said the average cost per household would be about $2.58 per month.

“Question #3 helps us hold down class sizes if state funding doesn’t come through in the future,” Blaha explained. “It’s a stop-gap measure.” She said the average cost for household would be $10.22 per month. But she emphasized that Question #3 empowers the school board to collect this levy only if the state legislature fails to deliver expected funding.

“After the last session of the legislature, it became clear school funding is not keeping up with our needs,” Blaha said. She said the community understands “they can’t wait for the state to do it for us -— we’re going to have to do it ourselves.