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Voters largely said ‘yes’ to school referendums. But rejection for some districts means tough decisions ahead.

A handful of districts across the state will be spending the coming months unpacking voters’ rejection of their referendum asks and preparing to make cuts to programming and staffing. 

Ahead of the 2020 presidential election — when local school board races and referendum asks will compete with more high-profile races for voter interest —  a number of Minnesota districts brought funding asks to their voters. 

For the most part, voters said “yes.”

Of the 43 districts that sought an operating levy — dollars to support things like staffing and programming — 38 approved at least one operating question, for an 88 percent passage rate.

Of the 36 districts that sought a bond — to fund things like facility upgrades and additions and technology projects — 29 passed at least one ask, with a 71 percent passage rate overall.

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Notably, White Bear Lake Area Schools secured a state-record-setting $326 million bond to fund renovations and the construction of a new elementary school to serve a growing student population.

Meanwhile, a handful of districts across the state will be spending the coming months unpacking voters’ rejection of their referendum asks and preparing to make cuts to programming and staffing. 

The winner-and-loser dynamic created by districts’ reliance on voter-approved funding has many district leaders and education advocates calling for education funding reforms at the state level. That includes Gov. Tim Walz, who last week tweeted: “While I am proud that Minnesotans step up when they see a need, this isn’t the way it should work. The quality of our children’s education shouldn’t hinge on a question on a ballot.”

As for the districts that struck out on Nov. 5, here’s a look at some of the factors that contributed to a larger “no” vote — along with what that means for the years ahead.

‘Vote No’ campaign takes over

In the Eastern Carver County Schools district — which encompasses Carver, Chanhassen, Chaska and Victoria — voters rejected a $111.7 million bond request for a new elementary school, a bus garage and maintenance projects. They also rejected a proposed operating levy increase. 

As a result, the district will plan for $4.5 million in budget reductions in the next year alone. According to information posted on the school’s website, class sizes will increase by about 1.5 students across the district, secondary class offerings may be impacted, and each building may need to cut up to 10 percent of its teachers and staff, among other reductions. 

If district leaders choose to try again next year, they’ll need to contend with one of the most vocal “Vote No” campaigns to have taken root in a school community this year — something that can be tricky to navigate since districts are legally constrained to only providing factual information to voters about the referendums they are seeking.

Opponents — both local voters and outsiders — showed up at board meetings and on social media to generate mistrust of the district’s requests, along with its equity work.

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An Alpha News video published earlier this fall stirred up much of the controversy surrounding the referendum asks, by calling the district’s equity work part of a “toxic agenda” meant to benefit students of color at the expense of white students. 

“There was a lot of misinformation circulating in the days and weeks ahead of the referendum, including a concerted effort to link the district’s equity work with the referendum itself,” a district spokesperson told MinnPost. “Whether those contributed to the failure of two ballot questions I can’t speculate, but it’s hard to deny there was an impact.”

A tougher sell in property-poor districts

Nearby, in the Jordan Public Schools district, voters rejected three referendum questions. Supt. Matthew Helgerson says the $15 million bond request for a new auditorium and indoor turf facility would have been beneficial additions. But he’s most concerned about the failed $24.5 million bond request for construction projects in his growing district, along with the failed operating levy increase request.

Supt. Matthew Helgerson
Supt. Matthew Helgerson
He says district administrators and school board members will be looking at reductions in the next several months. And the referendum results limit the district’s ability to address increasing elementary class sizes, to grow its programming and to keep rising inflationary costs of running a district — everything from utility costs to contracted services — from cutting into the general fund. 

While the district analyses the results over the next couple of months, Helgerson speculates rural township voters showed up in greater numbers this year, while parents did not. He also says being a property-poor district — meaning there’s not much commercial industry in town to help share the tax burden with homeowners — likely had an impact on this year’s results as well. People are still paying down a large bond that passed a few years back, that funded a middle school renovation and community center addition. On top of that, homeowners are strapped with high county taxes, which don’t need voter approval to increase.

“Why can counties and cities tax the public for things that they ‘need’ while school districts have to fight and claw for every dime we get?” Helgerson said, highlighting one area of potential reform. 

Located about an hour west of the Twin Cities, the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted district also sought an operating levy increase to better serve a growing student population. Additionally, the district sought a $2 million technology levy to expand its one-to-one Chromebook initiative to its middle schoolers and more. Both asks failed by a significant margin — a drastic shift from the voter support garnered in 2008 to build a new high school and remodel two elementary schools.

For now, Supt. Brad Sellner says he’s already started making a list of things for the board to consider, for reductions. He’s also vetting other ways to raise funds, through things like a modest increase in activities fees. 

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Speaking on behalf of another property-poor district, Sellner says his district is also part of a group that lobbies state legislators every year to improve equalization aid. 

“We’re a low-property-wealth district. We don’t have a lot of industry,” he said. “Unfortunately, when you have a local levy or ask for tax dollars, a majority of that gets put on the homeowners.”

Other roadblocks, reductions

Voters in the Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop district, in south central Minnesota, rejected a $49.5 million bond request to build a new PreK-12 building that would have replaced three existing buildings.

Supt. Lonnie Seifert
Supt. Lonnie Seifert
Supt. Lonnie Seifert says the new building design would have enabled the district to elevate its career trades offerings. It also would have included more open spaces where students could go to work collaboratively on projects, among other upgrades. 

Located in an ag-heavy community, he says voters expressed concerns about the overall cost. Even though state lawmakers have scaled up an ag credit that shifts a larger portion of school construction taxes from farmers to the state, he says voters are still a bit skeptical that it’s something they can count on longterm.

“I think there’s a mistrust that it’s not gonna be there for the 20 years of the bond,” Seifert said. 

But cost wasn’t the only hurdle, he says. Closing down school buildings in consolidated school districts isn’t a simple ask. 

“I think the biggest force to it going down was communities struggling with losing a building in their community,” he said. “It’s that feeling that if we don’t have a school building in our community that things are going to die out.” 

Farther south, in the Blue Earth Area School District, voters rejected a $900-per-pupil operating levy request to maintain class sizes, and to continue programming and robust music offerings: a band, choir and orchestra at both the middle- and high-school levels. 

Supt. Mandy Fletcher
Supt. Mandy Fletcher
Supt. Mandy Fletcher, who joined the district last summer, says the district hadn’t gone out for an operating referendum since 2009. That passed, but expired five years later; the district didn’t seek a renewal because it had a fairly substantial fund balance at the time. As enrollment began to decline over the last several years, that fund balance has taken a hit — hence the decision to go back out for an operating referendum. 

Strategically speaking, Fletcher says, operating levy renewals are an easier sell because voters don’t need to adjust to a new amount on their property tax statement. Ultimately, though, she’d like to see Walz’s vision for a more equitable school funding model come to fruition. 

“I was at a leadership conference a couple of years ago … where he spoke and said it’d be one of his goals to see there be no need for operating levies,” she said. “At the time, I thought: ‘My goodness — what a lofty goal.’ Now I’m on the flipside of it. I see what’s going to happen down the road to us — with cutting personnel, course offerings as a result of not being able to pass that operating levy.”