With operating levies on the ballot in 78 school districts [PDF], the state’s largest teachers union hopes that on Tuesday Minnesotans will vote to extend property taxes to fund their communities’ schools.
And then on Wednesday, Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher would like them to pick up the phone and demand that the new governor-elect commit to restoring state K-12 funding so that districts don’t have to rely on levies.
“We need to make sure voters understand that they can take this action Tuesday,” said Dooher. “But then they need to join in talking to the next governor and lawmakers about returning this system to the status it once had.”
Once referred to as “excess operating levies,” the local taxes used to go to fund extras. “Now it’s the norm for basic operations,” Dooher said. “It’s in every single corner of the state [PDF]. Ninety percent of districts have one, and of the 34 that don’t [PDF], most are going out for one on Tuesday.”
The unhappy result: The gap between relatively wealthy districts and poor ones continues to widen.
“It’s pretty glaring,” said Dooher. “We are creating greater inequities for our students depending on where they live.”
It’s the same problem the famous Minnesota Miracle of 1971 more or less fixed for more than 30 years until the Legislature restructured the tax code in 2002.
School levy referenda can be politically dicey. Voters in relatively affluent communities are quicker to associate high property values with having sought-after schools. In communities that are poorer, or where few residents have school-aged children, voters can be reluctant to tax themselves to balance the budget of a district they see as struggling.
Voters in Brooklyn Center, whose struggling schools are in the red, have rejected six consecutive levy requests since 2005, for instance.
Minnetonka and Orono, meanwhile, recently passed handsome levies and have been spared much of the budget-paring that other districts are experiencing. Families often are drawn to both districts because of their high-performing schools.
Most of this year’s levy requests aren’t going to improve school systems so much as keep the lights on, Dooher complained yesterday. Without the money, many districts will have to close schools, increase class sizes or reduce programming. Carlton Public Schools in Northern Minnesota could actually be forced to merge with another district if its referendum fails, he said: “Kids might be riding buses a lot longer than they are now.”
According to the union [PDF], inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending has fallen 14 percent since 2003 and is now below the national average. In terms of large class sizes, Minnesota ranks 47th at the elementary level nationally and 45th at the high school level.
Dooher said he’s confident many Minnesotans will vote in favor of referenda Tuesday, but renewing levies is no substitute for a long-term structural solution. “In order to have a strong community, you have to have strong schools,” he said.