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Minnesota voters largely say ‘no’ to school referendums this fall

Across the state, only 17 of 33 operating levies and only one of the five bond requests passed this fall.

Voters casting their ballots at Florence Town Hall on Election Day in Frontenac, Minnesota.
Voters casting their ballots at Florence Town Hall on Election Day in Frontenac, Minnesota.
REUTERS/Eric Miller

As voters continue to monitor election results, those who live in the Wheaton Area Schools district are reminded that every single vote counts. As of last Friday, the district’s operating levy ask — a proposed $520 per pupil increase — had acquired an equal number of yes and no votes. 

Daniel Posthumus
Daniel Posthumus
With 565 votes on either side, the levy fails. In an interview Monday, the district’s superintendent, Daniel Posthumus, said he believes one more ballot has already come in — another negative strike against the levy. But that tally could still change through Tuesday.

“At this point, we’re still waiting,” he said. 

His district still has one more year left on its current operating levy, so the repercussions of a failed ask this time around aren’t that immediate. But the district may decide to bring a similar ask to voters again next fall, just to cover its basic needs. That includes things like maintaining small class sizes and adding college-level offerings. Since the 1980s, the district has counted on voter support to help bridge the gap in state and federal funding — which hasn’t kept pace with inflation, and is now being strapped by the pandemic.

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Wheaton’s loss puts it in the majority, when it comes to overall referendum outcomes this fall.

Across the state, only 17 of 33 operating levies passed. That count includes all 13 renewals (which generally pass, since they don’t impact taxes) and just four operating levy increases. 

Greg Abbott
Greg Abbott
As far as operating levies go, it’s a notably low number of approvals — tied for a low of 17 approvals back in 1996 says Greg Abbott, communications director for the Minnesota School Boards Association. This count also marks the lowest passage rate — at just 51.5 percent — since 2008.

Only one of the five bond requests passed this fall. And only half of the 10 capital project levies — which were mostly earmarked for technology expenses — passed. “Districts were really relying on to get them the laptops and the one-to-one ratios for students when they have to move to distance learning,” Abbott said. 

He expects to see a large uptick in requests for both operating levies and capital projects levies next fall.  “If trying to teach in a pandemic has taught districts anything, it’s you have to have the equipment, the training for the teachers. And a lot of those technology needs cost money,” he said, noting district leaders likely won’t be relying on the state, given its $4.7 billion budget deficit. 

A tough sell

While presidential election years tend to drive up voter turnout counts, school items on the ballot run the risk of getting buried under all of the federal and state races. The fate of school referendums is further challenged by the pandemic, which prompted record amounts of early voting, Abbott adds. 

“You really needed to be getting your message out way before Sept. 18. It’s much earlier than most districts have done it in the past,” he said, noting school leaders were also busy juggling alternative learning models at the start of the school year. 

Dan Stifter
Dan Stifter
Dan Stifter, superintendent of Aitkin Public Schools, can attest to the challenges of communicating with voters during such a high-stakes election year. Voters rejected his district’s capital projects levy ask: $500,000 a year for 10 years. 

Under normal circumstances, he would have been hosting informational meetings on the referendum request and going out into the community to meet with groups and answer their questions. With the in-person opportunities stifled by the pandemic, he struggled to gauge what questions voters had about it. “I had very little feedback throughout the process, as to where we were at — if people had questions, if they were understanding,” he said. 

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A few years back, his district had already invested in one-to-one devices for all students in grades 7-12, using general fund dollars. In response to the pandemic, they expanded their one-to-one reach to students in grades K-6, using federal CARES Act dollars to help cover the cost of purchasing additional devices. 

But the technology tools and services needed to support distance learning are ongoing. Stifter read off a list of about a dozen technology expenses they’d hoped their tech levy would help cover — things like the district’s wireless network, software for the classrooms, purchasing additional hotspots and data plans for students without reliable internet access, and offsite backup and data protection.

Many of these expenses will need to be covered by shifting dollars out of the district’s general fund, he said. That fix is complicated by the fact that his district needed this operating levy to avoid cuts to programming and staffing even before the pandemic hit, due to declining enrollment and state and federal funding not keeping pace with inflation. This year, he counts a drop of at least 35 students who opted to do homeschooling — a further blow to the district’s budget, since state and federal dollars are allocated on a per-pupil basis.

“We’ll have to review and reduce staffing, reduce budgets,” he said in an interview Monday. “There’s no way around  it.”