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Brooklyn Center Schools weigh options after losing levy

Last Friday, Keith Lester, who is the superintendent of Brooklyn Center Schools, finally got a letter from the state Department of Education he’d been waiting for for weeks.

Last Friday, Keith Lester, who is the superintendent of Brooklyn Center Schools, finally got a letter from the state Department of Education he’d been waiting for for weeks. The official calculation of the amount of revenue that would be generated if his district’s levy request passed this fall, it had been held up by the state shutdown.

Keith Lester
Keith Lester

If Brooklyn Center residents voted to renew the district’s operating referendum, it showed, property-tax bills actually would go down about 5.5 percent. Normally, Lester would have gotten the notice in August — plenty of time to tell voters how a yes vote would affect them.

Held via mail-in ballot, the election was essentially over, however. The Secretary of State’s Office had been concerned that voters would confuse it with a primary being held Sept. 13, so Lester and the school board agreed to move it up 10 days. 

Tuesday, Lester learned that the levy was rejected 626-524. Would the news that taxes would go down have made a difference to the 102 voters who defeated it? Who knows.

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“I don’t know what to expect anymore,” the superintendent said yesterday. “The kids showed up this morning and they expect the same things they expect every year.”

Pulls rabbits from hats
Lester is far too familiar with irony. Superintendent of the impoverished district since 2005, he has kept the lights on largely by pulling rabbits from hats. He applies for grant after grant, begs local businesses and alums for donations and even laid off the district’s lone librarian.

Still, he had to find $2 million to cut for the current school year. Over the summer, he had to cut all 11 of the teachers who coached the district’s struggling elementary pupils in math and reading. Their intensive work had been paying off with rising test scores.

Like many Minnesota districts, Brooklyn Center had asked voters to approve a larger levy this year to compensate for cuts in state aid. Failing that, it and more than 120 other districts asked if residents would simply renew current levies.

Most of those elections are still upcoming and face unusual opposition from state GOP lawmakers who would have voters believe that schools actually are in line for windfalls in the next biennium. Lawmakers traditionally stay out of referendum campaigns.

Heated rhetoric
Yet the rhetoric — and some of the same misleading numbers — showed up in letters published last week in the Brroklyn Center Sun Post. “I received a card from Earle Brown Elementary announcing its open house equally in Spanish and English,” said one. “We need to pass a property tax so our schools can provide materials in languages other than English? Preposterous. This is America; we speak English.”

“It gets worse,” the writer continued. “If you can’t speak English, you cannot be a citizen. Thus, it appears the referendum is also meant to subsidize illegal aliens. One wonders how an American student feels sitting next to an illegal alien knowing the alien is taking resources meant to fund the American kid’s own education.”

Home to some 29,000 people, Brooklyn Center skews Democrat. Which means the 1,150 who voted likely have strong opinions on the matter, which in turn suggests anti-tax crusaders were paying more attention than parents and senior citizens — typically the voters who carry referenda.

Too late for November ballot
Lester has asked the Education Department for permission to hold another vote this year. But, because of the amount of notice required to call an election, it’s too late to get it on the November general election ballot.

As a result, the question might simply go before the same voters. The last time the request was put before them, 1,500 turned out. The district lost by 150 votes.

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If the levy is voted down a seventh time, property taxes will go down 15 percent in the district, and Lester will be on the hunt for at least $600,000 worth of cuts for the 2012-2013 school year. The levy the district would like to renew costs the average homeowner about $5 a month.

“We can’t go to people’s homes and walk them to the polls,” he said. “For us, the message is we need to get the word out about what we’re accomplishing and what’s at stake.”