This year’s school board elections faced an unprecedented level of scrutiny fueled by heated debate over masking mandates and critical race theory. With the election now over, the main outcome from Tuesday’s vote for Minnesota’s schools is an increase in funding from local taxpayers in many districts across the state.
Now, with the dust settling, MinnPost spoke with education leaders to look ahead as to what the results means for schools. Here are the main takeaways:
Ballot questions on funding schools through local taxes passed in a majority of districts — even in districts that had rejected similar questions in the past.
Sixty-five districts across the state asked voters to approve or renew operating levies or to raise taxes to increase levies to help fund schools as they struggle to keep up with rising costs. Nearly two-thirds of the referendums passed, with 100 percent of the referendums passing in metro areas and 63 percent passing in rural areas. State funding has declined over the years (now only accounting for 65 percent of school funding), leaving school districts to rely on local property taxes to account for nearly twenty percent of funding.
“The whole reason why we have so many of these questions coming over and over again is because we have an overreliance on funding of schools on local property-tax payers,” said Denise Specht, the president of the teachers union Education Minnesota. “20 to 30 years ago, this certainly wasn’t the way it was. You saw the majority of school funding coming from the state of Minnesota.”
Still, Specht and other leaders welcome the support from voters. Support for the referendums and levies increased this year. Last year, only 51% of districts were able to gain approval from voters for local tax funding for school operating costs. This year that percentage has increased to nearly 75%.
Districts where the questions passed after being rejected in the past include Aitkin, Shakopee and East Carver County.
Specht credits voters for understanding the value of a good education but also lauded teachers and educational activists for reaching out to the community.
“The voters didn’t change,” said Specht. “But I think what’s changed is just the ability to get out and talk to the community about the real need and I think from people hearing from the districts or the school staff about what the needs are, rather than hearing things on Twitter or Facebook.”
In rural districts, the Ag2School bond credit may have helped win farmer votes for school bond levies.
Seventeen of 28 rural districts approved referendums for bond levies that are used to finance building and capital projects.
Bob Indihar, the executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association said recent legislation could be the reason. Specifically, the Ag2School bond credit, which was created in 2017 but has been growing in size each year. Since farmers tend to hold a lot of land, property-tax backed bond issues can fall disproportionately on them. The bond credit seeks to lessen that impact.
“Typically, farmers would have had a pretty hefty price to pay on the bonds that passed and one of the legislative things that have kind of changed the tide on that a little bit is the Ag2school bond credit that farmers get now. So we’re starting to see a positive effect of that,” Indihar said.
Districts that didn’t pass bonds or levies may have to make additional cuts.
For the districts where operating levies passed, schools will see an increase in funding for their schools’ technology and infrastructure, be able to hire more staff and fund additional programs to their schools. Those that didn’t may have to make additional cuts.
“We really need to have a conversation about how this is really not a sustainable, equitable way to fund schools,” said Specht. “We should not be asking local property tax payers to continue to pay for what the state should be paying for, what this does is that just kind of continues to perpetuate the gap. The funding gap haves and have-nots, inequitable opportunities for children rather than all children having the same, the same opportunities.”
Many districts where schools are already underfunded did not see their referendums pass, including St. Michael-Albertville Schools. “Albertville had very deep cuts at the end of last year, and I don’t know what this means for them going into this coming year,” Specht said.
In rural districts many schools struggle to match the funding levels of their metro counterparts.
“The fact is that funding for schools has not kept pace over the years here, and the schools have to rely more and more on operating referendums, which puts an extra burden on schools,” Indihar said about rural districts. “And it’s tougher for schools that have a poor property tax base to get any of these referendums passed.”
Indihar said the over reliance on operating referendums is one of the big inequities in the state, where many districts struggle to pass them due to their tax base.
And while relying on property taxes helps some districts keep up with rising inflation and the current gen-ed formula, Kirk Schneidawind, the executive director of Minnesota School Boards Association, said not much can change without changes at the state level. “We need to explore greater equalization of those operating levies to help those districts who are in property, poor districts, otherwise I think we’ll continue to see a reliance on operating referendums for our school districts.”
For the most part, voters rejected anti-CRT candidates, but the issue isn’t going anywhere
Despite a lot of attention to the issue over the summer, only a handful of the many candidates campaigning against Critical Race Theory were successful. In general — as in most elections — school board incumbents tended to retain their seats.
In South Washington County, where the race was particularly heated, four candidates decided to run as a group with a shared platform of opposing mask mandates and CRT. Only one candidate, Eric Tessemer, won, with twelve percent of votes.
Other successful candidates include Matt Audette in Anoka-Hennepin and Maureen Eigen in Alexandria, both who were endorsed by the anti-CRT political PAC, the 1776 Project PAC.
Specht believes parents were deterred by the spectacle of disrupted school board meetings over the summer, instead choosing candidates that had already proven themselves.
“It just feels like voters were shouting out for some sanity, you know, and I think that, you know, parents want their children to be happy. They want them to be safe. They want them to be learning. And they’re going to be looking for decision makers that are going to make decisions where all of that happens for their kids,” Specht said.
Specht doubts that CRT as a campaign platform is done.
“Those kinds of conversations are really kind of stirring up a base or a kind of voter that the people who are funding these campaigns want to see show up in the election in 2022,” Specht said. “So I think a lot of this is just a precursor to what we’re going to see a year from now and beyond.”
And going forward, Schneidawind believes that school board races are going to continue being in the spotlight.
“School board races are going to be an important election for at least for the next two election cycles at a minimum,” Schneidawind said. “We have seen that people are taking an interest and a look at what’s happening in our public schools. And I think that’s important.”