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Careful attention to school-district communications, including rumor control, preceded levy wins

This video shows what classes would look like with 50+ students.

In the run-up to yesterday’s school referendum, the Anoka-Hennepin School District created a YouTube video depicting a classroom with 50 kids in it, the size projected if voters refused to renew its $48 million-a-year levy. The district posted a tax calculator, FAQs in five languages and, perhaps most telling, created a webpage dedicated to debunking levy rumors.

“Rumor: I heard the superintendent moved recently and got a big stipend for ‘moving costs.’ How can they ask for a levy when this goes on?” read the top entry on the page.

“THE FACTS: The superintendent moved a block. He still resides in Blaine and within the Anoka-Hennepin School District boundaries. He did not receive any money for moving and paid a student out of his own pocket to help him move boxes and furniture.”

Beleaguered Superintendent Dennis Carlson’s next move might just be a voluntary, one-way one to Tahiti. Once upon a time, keeping the fiscal taps turned on was a lot simpler.

Increasingly steep uphill battles likely
Residents of Minnesota’s largest school district Tuesday voted two-to-one to renew their existing levy, but it’s a safe bet no one actually exhaled. This week’s record numbers of winning referenda notwithstanding, long-term trends suggest that in the future, school levies will face increasingly steep uphill battles.

One of the founders of Decision Resources, a research firm that has consulted on more than 400 referenda, Bill Morris has taken a look at the numbers from Tuesday’s balloting. He attributes the overwhelming number of “yes” votes to late decisions by undecided voters in all four quadrants of the state. 

“A number of key groups in opposition softened considerably toward the end,” he said. “Over-65s, for example, softened tremendously.”

Republican state lawmakers “overreached” by campaigning against the funding requests using claims that schools had gotten a “windfall” during the recent legislative session and had no business asking voters to dig deeper, he said.

Indeed, the second rumor addressed on Anoka-Hennepin’s website involves numbers likely taken from fliers created by the GOP earlier this fall.

“Rumor: I heard that Anoka-Hennepin is getting an extra $763 per pupil in revenue from the state. Why do they need a levy if this is true?

“THE FACTS: This is not true. The district did receive additional money, but it is not even close to this amount. … Bottom line, the district received $2.2 million this year and will receive $7.2 million next year (of which $3 million is one-time money). From 2011 to 2013, this is an increase of $178 per pupil plus $79 per pupil in one-time funds. This is nowhere near the $1,044 per pupil provided by the referendum levy that is up for renewal.”

(An ironic aside: The underlying accounting is complicated, but the numbers floated in the rumor actually include dollars to be generated by the levies on ballots this week, which the lawmakers wanted voters to reject.)

‘A terrible, terrible miscalculation’
People simply did not believe that schools were flush. “Most people live in districts that were going through budget reduction processes, and in many cases horrendous reduction processes,” said Morris. “So to portray schools as having excess was a terrible, terrible miscalculation.”

In fact, the budgetary bloodletting may have reversed a decade-old public perception that education is bloated, Morris added: “The school districts have finally put a stake in the [Jesse] Ventura assertion that schools are black holes.”

But with voter support for levy requests softening in general, controlling the message will be key going forward. In suburbs in particular, districts should be circulating regular newsletters to every household in the district, not just parents — and not just when a referendum is scheduled.

Columns penned by superintendents and school board members are very effective, as are explanations accounting for how the district is making the most of its taxpayer dollars.

Case in point: “Rumor: If you cut administration, you can save the money you need.

“THE FACTS: Anoka-Hennepin’s central administration costs are 2.9 percent of total expenses, and its costs are one of the lowest in the metro area. If the entire central administration were eliminated (and if, theoretically we could manage without departments like benefits, which manages the health insurance plan, and payroll, which ensures staff are paid), the savings would be $12 million. This is one-quarter of the $48 million renewal that is Question 1 of this year’s levy referendum.”

Clarifying letters sent out
Lots of districts struggled with rumor-control. Administrators in Brooklyn Center, which lost its third referendum in September, penned clarifying letters when the GOP’s numbers and arguments showed up in a local newspaper’s letters column. 

Westonka endured a vitriolic slugfest in which some vote-no proponents suggested that approval would increase homeowners’ taxes by $14,000. The actual amount: $39 per $100,000 in housing value.

“You’ve really got to have an environment out there where the school district is not seen as good financial stewards for that kind of thing to succeed,” said Morris.

Westonka put up a tax calculator, tax comparison data, detailed lists of specific improvements the money would pay for and an explanation of Minnesota’s school funding system that is many times more user-friendly than the 115-page handout lawmakers are given. In addition to information about school finances, the district provided general information on property taxes.

Voters this week renewed the district’s levy and approved two new ones.

People still understand that the reputation of their local schools is a huge part of their property’s value, he continued. Districts need to remind people of this, but also broaden the conversation to speak to voters who don’t have school-age kids.

Seniors ‘vote their hearts’
“Seniors, we’ve known for a long time if they’re going to be a ‘yes’ vote, they’re going to vote their hearts,” said Morris. “The minute the conversation goes to dollars and cents you’ve lost them because they are on fixed incomes.”

Communicating effectively may be crucial going forward, but better still would be a return to a school funding system that relies much more heavily on a uniform, statewide, general education levy, education advocates said. 

Even if districts succeed in teaching people about their need for levies, the current system is “way too regressive,” Parents United Executive Director Mary Cecconi said yesterday. “We need a new formula that doesn’t put it on local taxpayers.”

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/10/2011 - 01:32 pm.

    To borrow from Horace Mann, everybody benefits from good public schools. That’s a lesson that local districts should be relentless about emphasizing every month, every year.

    Beyond that, Ms. Cecconi is, I think, close to the mark in the last paragraph. I qualify as a “senior,” and don’t object at all to bearing some of the burden of funding good local schools, but the state’s constitution quite explicitly places the primary responsibility for funding public schools on the shoulders of the legislature.

    Were I a lawyer, or someone who’d recently won PowerBall and was looking for a way to spend a sizable amount of money by hiring people who ARE lawyers, I’d be taking the state to court, with House and Senate leaders and Messrs. Pawlenty and Dayton as defendants, over the inexcusable failure of state government to live up to its constitutional responsibilities regarding the funding of public schools in every corner of Minnesota.

    Lacking both the PowerBall winnings and the law degree, I have to agree with Ms. Cecconi, though I’d modify her off-the-cuff statement to say, “We need a new formula that doesn’t put (so much of it) on local taxpayers.”

  2. Submitted by Sue Halligan on 11/10/2011 - 05:31 pm.

    I live in Woodbury, which, believe it or not, is split among THREE school districts, a fact that mystifies me. The South Washington Co. school district held school board elections. The Stillwater school district, which includes a portion of northeast Woodbury where I live, offered a 3-question levy referendum, all of which failed. The No. St. Paul-Maplewood school district (in the northwest part of Woodbury) also had a levy referendum, which passed.

    My daughter attended elementary school in the So. Washington school district and junior-high and high school in the Stillwater district. I always voted in favor of the levy requests in those days, and I did so again on Tuesday, although I’m now a senior and knew it would raise my property taxes, which have gone up for the last two years in spite of the collapse in housing values. Everyone who’s been paying attention knows the disastrous position schools were left in by this year’s unconscionable legislative actions.

    But when I got to my polling place on Tuesday (which was different from my usual polling place), I followed a woman who was asking where she should be voting – she was in the second wrong location, having been sent there by the first location. The attendant at the greeting post was unable to tell her the correct place without placing a call to Washington county officials and asked her to wait “just a minute.” The woman attempting to vote was short of time as she needed to pick up her child and had already been delayed beyond her expectations. I did not stay to find out whether she stayed or left. But the confusion caused by: 1)multiple school districts in one city; 2)polling places for these elections different from voters’ accustomed polling places; and 3)polling place attendants unable to direct voters to their correct polling places without phoning county headquarters, all combined, I’m sure, to skew election results.

  3. Submitted by Joe Musich on 11/10/2011 - 05:41 pm.

    If education is a civil right under our t he state constitution could not the mnclu take on this case? It is the inequity that is the issue.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/11/2011 - 09:03 am.

    Note, misinformation was being deliberately floated by Republicans… standard practice I’m afraid. When will people stop voting for these hacks until they clean up their act and show some integrity.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/11/2011 - 09:14 am.

    I’d be really interested to know why Woodbury is split between three districts, there must be some history behind that.

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