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Minnesota taxpayers largely said ‘yes’ to more school funding. But what does the future look like for the districts that struck out?

Rural districts are, disproportionately, struggling to pass voter-approved referendums.

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.”

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Steve Carlson on 11/27/2017 - 12:06 pm.

    Putting their money where their mouth is (or isn’t)

    Isn’t this basically the outcome rural Republicans want? Local control and low taxes. And to extrapolate further, their argument goes that business and people will eventually move to Rockford, drawn by the low taxes.

    Now we all know that’s not how it works in the real world, but if they want to cut off their noses to spit their faces, who are Metro taxpayers to stop them?

  2. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 11/27/2017 - 01:39 pm.

    Home schooling is also being seen as an attractive alternative to the government system by growing numbers of highly involved parents.

    Home schooled kids enter college at greater numbers, and with better ACT scores on average.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/27/2017 - 03:23 pm.

      Wouldn’t That

      Auger the other way, that increased home schooling would result in savings for rural districts?

      And when you mention home school students being more likely to enter college and having higher ACT scores, are you controlling for factors such as income, level of parental education, or other relevant factors?

      • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 11/27/2017 - 03:52 pm.

        Home schooling removes students from the system, but because of the way the unions have set it up, and due to fixed costs, there is no economy of scale.

        Home schoolers enter college at higher rates than public school students, and with higher average ACT scores.

        Their parents successfully educate their kids, and, evidently, ignore all the reasons they shouldn’t be able to, and dont take notice of “controls” that might come in handy as excuses if they did not.

        • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/27/2017 - 08:28 pm.

          Apples To Apples

          ACT/SAT scores tell more about what zip code you live in than anything else. To simply compare all public school students (a very large group) to home school students (a statistically small group) is virtually meaningless. Do home school students enter college at higher rates than public school students in the zip codes encompassing the Fertile Crescent (Eden Prairie, Edina, Minnetonka, and west Bloomington)? Are public school students in the Fertile Crescent more likely than home schoolers to enter elite (public or private) colleges? If that were true, would it mean that public schools in the Fertile Crescent are doing a better job than home school families?

          Removing some students from public schools does little to lower the overall costs to school districts, but it has to do with basic economics rather than union rules. It costs just as much to heat a building that is at 90% capacity than building at 98% capacity. A teacher is paid the same whether there are 23 students or 25. These factors are true for both public and non-public schools. Same deal for sweeping a cafeteria floor.

    • Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 11/28/2017 - 08:52 pm.

      It would be interesting

      ti see some stats on how the lower to average ability and the special education students do in home schooling situations compared to how they do in the public schools.

  3. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/27/2017 - 02:07 pm.

    Here Is the Solution for Rural Distrcits

    Keep voting for GOP legislators who talk loudly about getting their “fair share” of state spending. When those legislators don’t do a dang thing for them, vote them in again. And always squawk about those cit-idiots in the Metro, ’cause it sure feels good to stick it to those LRT-riding, gay-marriage loving heathens.

    Lather, rinse, repeat.

    After all, government is too big. Except for the part that benefits me.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/28/2017 - 10:32 am.

    Thank you, Mr. Phelan

    I don’t think I can say it better, particularly regarding home schooling, which is largely an ideological and ego exercise on the part of the parents, not a reflection of the quality, or lack thereof, of local schools. The fiscal restraints on rural school districts seem to me to be the logical outcome of the lawmakers and policies supported by those same rural residents.

    At the same time, the primary solution, as well as the directive to use it, remains pretty much in plain sight. From the Minnesota Constitution, Article XIII:

    “Section 1. Uniform system of public schools.

    The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.

    Sec. 2. Prohibition as to aiding sectarian school.

    In no case shall any public money or property be appropriated or used for the support of schools wherein the distinctive doctrines, creeds or tenets of any particular Christian or other religious sect are promulgated or taught.”

    I’m no lawyer, but it appears that the state is responsible for establishing and maintaining a **uniform** system of public schools. To the degree that rural districts find themselves unable to provide services and programs equivalent to those offered in more affluent suburban districts (MPS is $33 million in the red, so “affluence” doesn’t seem to apply to Minneapolis schools, and my impression is that St. Paul is in similar financial straits.), they ought to be pushing the legislators they’ve elected into a corner of the statehouse cloakroom and demanding — not requesting, but demanding — financial relief at the state level on a permanent basis. At the same time, Section 2 makes it pretty clear than none of that relief should be going to sectarian schools, whether under the guise of “charter” schools or not.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/28/2017 - 12:53 pm.

      Those of Us

      Who home school our children do so after a great deal of careful consideration about what is best for our families. And while we are a far more diverse lot than many presume, I can assure it has nothing to do with ego or ideology, at least for the majority of us.

  5. Submitted by ian wade on 11/29/2017 - 02:42 pm.

    The Forest Lake levy

    might have had a shot, had it not been for the fact that the voters granted them a 143 million dollar facilities bond two years earlier. Property owners are just feeling the effects of that one, which will remain taxed at the same level for the next 26 years. Couple that with the Boards insistence that the 2015 request be put to a vote as a single issue in the spring of a non-election year, and I’m not really surprised that this particular request was swatted down as handily as it was. Many people in the area thought that the district did everything in its power to stack the deck in 2015.

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