This fall, 98 school districts in Minnesota asked voters to approve referendums to support everything from reducing class sizes and avoiding staff cuts to investing in building upgrades, construction projects, safety improvements and technology.
As a result, students across the state will benefit from new, improved and sustained school resources totaling more than $1 billion, compliments of those who pay property taxes in their local communities.
Operating levy renewals and increases found widespread support at the polls, with 50 of 61 operating levies passing. At an 82 percent passage rate, this year stacks up as one of the most successful years for garnering voter support to fund things like expanding vocational and technological opportunities and offsetting the inflationary costs associated with basic expenses, including utilities and transportation.
On the bond front — where districts made requests for money to support building and technology projects — voters approved measures in 28 of the 41 districts seeking such funds on Nov. 7. At a 68 percent passage rate, Greg Abbott, communications director for the Minnesota School Boards Association, says these outcomes “fit within the norm from past years.”
Despite the success that many districts celebrated last week, Abbott took note of a pattern that’s been out of sight, out of mind for many who live in the Twin Cities and surrounding suburbs: Rural districts are, disproportionately, struggling to pass voter-approved referendums.
“They don’t have that taxbase to spread it over,” Abbott said.
This places property-poor districts — and the students they serve — at a distinct disadvantage. So even though the winners outshone the losers this year, it’s worth revisiting how setting districts up to rely so heavily on voter-supported funding exacerbates disparities in educational opportunities for students.
Grappling with budget cuts
This year the Forest Lake Area Schools district asked voters to support a couple of new funding streams: a $750-per-pupil operating levy increase and a $9 million bond for improvements to arts and athletic facilities.
In a news release published by the district in August, laying out the rationale for these requests, Rob Rapheal, the school board chair, informed voters that insufficient state funding earmarked for general operating expenses has compromised the district’s ability to compete with neighboring districts when it comes to things like maintaining lower class sizes, attracting and retaining quality educators and supporting extracurricular activities.
Underscoring the need for bond money, he said, “It’s inexcusable that our track team, which regularly competes at an extremely high level, does not even have a home track. And it’s unfair that the arts programs in our schools have to settle for second- and third-rate facilities. This bond question nearly passed two years ago, and I believe if voters take another look at it they might just see things in a different light this year.”
Both asks ended up failing, with 57 percent of voters rejecting each request.
“We’ve been making budget reductions each of the last number of years,” said Superintendent Steve Massey, in a phone interview after the results came in. “Now we’ll go through an internal process to identify what specific reductions will look like.”
He thinks the district had a compelling message — through the factual information provided by the district and the “vote yes” campaign run by supportive community members. In the coming months, he says leadership will spend some time analyzing how neighboring districts found success at the polls. But since districts are legally constrained to only providing factual information, he’s not sure there’s much more the district can do next time around to change voters’ minds.
“So we’re underfunded from the state, then given this opportunity — if not burden — to ask our local communities to support a referendum increase,” he said. “Yet we can’t promote it.”
Further west, in the Rockford Area Schools district, voters rejected two requests: a $1,142-per-pupil operating levy increase and a nearly $4 million bond that would have funded technology upgrades over a 10-year span. With roughly 2,300 votes cast for each question, both failed by a fairly slim margin — 278 and 242 votes, respectively.
Superintendent Paul Durand says the district is now facing upwards of $1 million in cuts, a blow that “comes on the backs of prior years of cuts.” As a result, he says he’s already looking at making cuts in a number of areas, including music, arts, athletics and gifted and talented programming. The cut list extends to two recently established programs — in business and agriculture — that were established as career pathways for students. From a personnel standpoint, he suspects a dozen or so employees will be impacted as well.
“That’s a pretty significant impact on a small district,” he said, noting that part of the appeal of attending a smaller district has long been that it’s easier to participate in more extracurriculars and to build close relationships with educators.
“At some point either the community will step up and support the schools, or the schools will look significantly differently than they do today,” he said.
With the exception of the Columbia Heights Public Schools district, all other losing districts this year are located further outside of the metro area.
Calls to level the playing field
Educators and district administrators — along with the various professional and advocacy groups that represent them — have long lobbied for school funding reforms at the state capitol. The pitch is pretty clearcut: State funding for public education has not kept pace with annual inflation. That forces districts to rely on asking local taxpayers to pick up the slack (within the bounds of a state-mandate cap), just so districts can maintain current services.
But taxpayers living in low-property-wealth districts — with fewer businesses — are being asked to shoulder a much higher tax burden than those living in high-property-wealth districts. That means voters in rural and Greater Minnesota are being asked to contribute a larger amount in taxes earmarked for their public schools than their more affluent neighbors, just to ensure their kids have access to the same resources and opportunities.
“Different communities vote to pay roughly the same amount in annual property taxes but generate hundreds of dollars less per pupil for their schools,” said Deb Griffiths, director of communications and community outreach for Schools for Equity in Education, a Minnesota-based advocacy group that’s been working on this issue for years.
For instance, for local property taxes paid in 2017 (for the 2017-18 school year), the current $886-per-pupil operating levy in the Forest Lake district costs a taxpayer with a $100,00 property value $121. In the nearby White Bear Lake Area Schools district, that same class of taxpayers contribute just a bit more for more than double the levy dollars for their public schools — they pay $257 toward a $1,935-per-pupil operating levy.
In Rockford, offering a similar example, Durand points to the nearby Wayzata district, where voters approved three asks for more taxpayer-supported school funding this year.
“We don’t have the business and industry to be able to balance out the impact on property taxes to the local residents,” he said. “We have this uphill battle to try and climb because of the way these funding formulas are structured in the state.”
Both superintendents point out that no other local governing entity is expected to win voter approval in order to generate enough revenue to fund public services. School boards are only permitted to levy up to $300 dollars per pupil without voter approval. Local city councils, county boards and parks commissions, on the other hand, all have the legal authority to levy for the operating dollars they need to fund projects and provide routine services. Massey says he’d like to see this restriction lifted.
“The Legislature can eliminate that factor, simply by giving school boards levying authority. They’re prudent, financially responsible people,” he said, adding community members could still weigh in by choosing to “continue to vote them into office, or vote someone else in.”
Durand acknowledges there have been some efforts to try to deal with this equalization issue through more of a patchwork approach. There’s a new agriculture land credit to help offset the burden placed on farmers. And there’s some equalization funding that’s been earmarked for long-term facilities maintenance issues.
But when something as simple as picking up two new students in need of personalized specialized education services — something that’s federally mandated, yet chronically underfunded — draws a couple hundred thousand dollars out of the general fund, Durand contends state lawmakers need to come up with a more dependable plan for equalizing school funding.
“There’s a real have and have nots in the state, where there are some districts that have a significant amount of resources they can apply to directly impact the academic achievement of their students,” he said, adding “others are trying to continually figure out how to stretch dollars.”