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State Forcing Schools to Beg for Money Today

November 03, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Make no mistake about it, the levy referenda appearing today in 63 Minnesota school districts is not simply about finding more money to pay for education. The levies are an indictment against a state underinvestment that has abandoned Minnesota and has left our children the poorer because of it.

First, the simple facts: Since 2003, Minnesota state investment in schools has dropped an inflation-adjusted 13 percent. School districts have been forced to ask voters to fix this irresponsible funding policy through local property tax levies. In some districts, voters approved these taxes; in some they didn't. Where voters approved the additional levies, the quality of education remained the same or, in some cases, improved. Where voters didn't, teachers were laid off, academic programs were cut, class sizes blossomed and the overall quality of education dropped noticeably.

In addition, this summer Gov. Tim Pawlenty took a bad accounting practice and made it worse. Pawlenty shifted 27 percent of state school aid from this year to next, meaning districts have to find the cash to pay more than a quarter of their budget in the short term. The shift will also occur next year. Education experts note that, conceivably, the aid eventually comes back to 100 percent, but that eventuality could be many years from now.

Local levies were meant to provide "extras" to school districts while the state was to provide what schools need to offer an adequate education. Today, more than 96 percent of Minnesota's 340 school districts need local property owners to make up the difference between what the state requires for an adequate education and what the state is willing to pay for such an education. Several districts that have avoided a local levy thus far, such as Ogilvie, Pelican Rapids and Rothsay, can hold out no longer and are going to voters for enough money to provide students an education.

Shame would be the emotion of the day for those of us who live in these 63 districts who have to vote today to do what the state will not: Adequately fund our schools. Today is not a day to be proud to be a Minnesotan.

Here's a roundup of some of the education levies under consideration today:

Minnesota's largest school district, Anoka-Hennepin, is asking voters to renew a 10-year, $6 million levy approved in 1999 that expires this year. The board is also seeking an additional $33 per student adjustment for inflation. Should the levy referendum renewal pass, a taxpayer who owns a $200,000 home will pay about $2 a month more in property tax starting in 2010. A failed levy would mean a property tax decrease of $4.64 per month for that same home. Should a "no" vote prevail, some $8 million in additional budget cuts will need to be made by the school board.

Voters in the Centennial School District face two questions. The first would add five years to an operating levy that expires in 2011 and would not increase taxes. If voters do not approve the renewal, the district would likely cut about $5 million from its general fund. The second question seeks an additional $295 per student for the next six years to cover the cost of inflation. The increase would raise property taxes by $133.19 a year on a home valued at $200,000, or just more than $11 a month. The district will cut $1 million to $2 million even if both questions pass.

Voters in the Spring Lake Park school district are being asked to renew one operating levy and increase another. The first question seeks to renew a levy expiring in 2009 that generates $1.5 million annually for the district. This levy would not increase taxes.  The second question asks voters to revoke a 10-year levy passed in 2002 and replace it with another that would create $849 per student - $325 more per student than the original levy. The new levy would generate $12.4 million annually. If approved, it would increase taxes by $96 a year, or $8 a month for a home valued at $200,000.

Ogilvie is one of only a handful of Minnesota school districts currently operating without some form of local voter subsidy. Sadly, Ogilvie school board members are asking voters to increase per-pupil spending by $900 annually. This is the second straight year in which Ogilvie is seeking voter approval of an operating levy. A larger one failed last November by a tally of 1,050 to 800.

The Jordan district is putting two questions to voters: The first would authorize an annual property tax levy of $375 per pupil. The second, contingent upon the passage of the first, would add another $175 per pupil.

South St. Paul schools are asking voters to replace and increase an existing operating levy, which was approved in 2003. The current levy generates $869 per pupil. If approved, the new levy would increase that by $140 for a total of $1,009 per pupil.

The Paynesville school district will ask voters to increase its current $415 per pupil operating levy and replacing it with an $815 per pupil levy. If approved, the proposed ten year levy would increase incrementally, with years one and two of the levy being $615 per pupil and years three through 10 being $815 per pupil.

The Moorhead School District is asking taxpayers for an additional $850 per pupil for seven years. It would bring in an extra $5.25 million a year. The levy would raise taxes by an estimated $183 a year on a $100,000 home.

The Eden Valley-Watkins School District is asking voters to replace an existing levy with a $700 per pupil unit levy - a $250 per pupil increase. The new levy would mean that a person owning a home with a market value of $100,000 would see a $51 annual property tax increase.

The Rushford-Peterson School District is asking voters to adopt a $940 operating levy to replace one set to expire in June 2012.

Zumbrota-Mazeppa schools are asking voters to replace a $700 levy that expires next year with an eight-year levy that would provide a maximum of $950 per pupil. The proposed levy would provide about $1 million a year. The currently levy gives the school $850,000. Taxpayers with $100,000 of property currently pay $142 each year. If approved, that amount would rise $65, to $207.

The New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva referendum would provide $450 per pupil for a period of 10 years. This is the same amount of funding the district asked for in 2008 when an operating referendum was voted down.

The Detroit Lakes school district is asking for a $457 per pupil operating levy. The levy would raise an additional $400,000 annually, up from $319 per pupil.

Blooming Prairie schools will ask voters to pass two referendums. The first question, which would take the place of a levy that expires in 2012, gives the district $700 per pupil. The second question would give the district an additional $200 per pupil, but if the first question is not approved, this question automatically fails.

Wadena-Deer Creek is asking voters to authorize $650 per pupil to replace a levy set to expire. A second question would add an additional $150 per student, but the first question must pass in order for the second to pass. Without the levy, cuts to non-core classes will be made and teachers and support staff will be laid off. In the last three years, the WDC School Board has made $2.1 million in staff and program reductions.

The Perham School District is asking residents to support a three year operating levy, which could generate an additional $500,000 each year.

Rothsay residents will vote on a five year $317,000 operating levy, which would generate an additional $1,400 per pupil. The district currently does not have an operating levy in place.

In Pelican Rapids, a $1 million levy would generate $1,100 per pupil. The district does not have an existing operating levy.

Lac qui Parle Valley voters are being asked to renew an existing, $1,100 per pupil levy.

The MACCRAY district is asking voters to revoke an existing, $501 per pupil levy and replace it with a $1,101 per pupil levy.

The Montevideo district is asking voters to approve a $975 per pupil levy in place of a $406 per pupil levy.

The Paynesville district is asking voters to increase the operating levy by $200 for the first two years and by another $200 for the remaining years.

The Renville County West district is asking for a $1,500 levy to replace a $1,203 levy. The voters will also decide whether to approve a $300 per pupil, additional levy for three years for building maintenance.

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