This morning when Mary Cecconi, executive director of the grassroots education advocacy group Parents United and Minnesota’s unofficial school-finance historian, saw the results of yesterday’s school referenda elections she did a little happy dance.
According to the online results cheat-sheet maintained by the Minnesota School Boards Association, voters yesterday approved 80 percent of the requests for operating levies on ballots in 114 communities.
“To my knowledge, that’s the highest amount in recent history,” she said. “Only one renewal went down — that’s pretty empowering. I honestly don’t know how to look at this as anything but a true testament to people’s desire to have decently funded schools.”
Greg Abbott, spokesman for the school boards group and the education sector’s anointed tabulator of the results, agrees. “But the rates are also high for districts asking for increases. The big reason is that odd-year elections have more transparency. People understood the need for schools to get money to the classroom,” he said.
“They realized that with the state lagging in funding for eight of the past 10 years, that local communities had to step up,” Abbott added. “They made a local decision to put the education of kids before politics.”
Just half passed last year
Last year, just half of the 80 referenda on Minnesota ballots passed. Levy requests traditionally do better in odd-year elections when there are fewer issues before voters, but as Cecconi parsed the returns early this morning she saw more at play.
In a roundabout way, she credits Republican state lawmakers with handing schools the wins. What she and other Parents United staff heard in the days running up to the election was that voters understand the nuances of the 60-40 funding shift the Legislature used to balance the budget this year, and the severity of the accounting maneuver’s effect on the classroom.
“The shift made people very uncomfortable,” she said. “They got the fact very quickly that no matter what the promise from the state is, schools were not going to get all of their money this year. And that made them very angry, that the schools were being used to balance the state’s checkbook.”
GOP lawmakers had lobbied voters
In recent weeks, Republican lawmakers have taken the unprecedented step of lobbying voters to reject levy requests, arguing that schools got hefty “windfall” funding increases during the recent legislative session and had no business asking people to tax themselves further.
Indeed, House GOPers’ efforts may well have backfired, Cecconi added. “That made people look at levies differently,” she explained. “It might have made for more fertile ground when districts came to them and said, ‘We need this.’ ”
While requests for increased funding generally did not fare as well, just one of the 58 districts asking voters to extend an existing levy, ROCORI, lost its renewal campaign. Overall, 90 districts passed some form of levy and 24 rejected them.
Largest district got renewal
Residents of Anoka-Hennepin, Minnesota’s largest school district, voted two-to-one to renew their existing levy of $1,044 per student. A 10-year technology levy squeaked by 51-49, while a request to increase per-pupil funding by $260 failed 55-45.
Burnsville-Eagan-Savage schools won their referendum by a two-to-one vote, as did Forest Lake, Hastings and Inver Grove Heights. Fridley’s request won by a three-to-one margin.
Many districts asked both for a renewal and a levy increase. Requests for increases were rejected in Inver Grove Heights, Albany, Cloquet, Cannon Falls, Richfield, Delano, New Ulm and 20 other communities. Centennial’s request for $275 in increased funding was approved, but by an eight-point margin.
Requests for brand-new levies in communities that have not had them failed in all but three districts. New-money referenda passed by comfortable margins in St. Charles and Waseca, but Pelican Rapids’ request for $600 per pupil was approved by a narrow 1359-1143 vote.
In wealthier districts, levies sailed through
In Edina, Orono and North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale — districts where high property values and desirable schools have long enjoyed a cause-and-effect reputation in people’s minds — requests sailed through with yes votes in the 80-percent range.
The good news for schools is only in the short term, however. The dark underbelly to yesterday’s balloting is that students are more dependent on geographic luck than at any other time in the last 40 years.
“I’m really concerned about the kids in those [districts where referenda failed],” said Cecconi. “Now it’s really a Monopoly board of chance: If you were born on Park Place, great; if you were born in North Branch, Rocori or Cannon Falls, your opportunities are severely curtailed.”
In short, she and other education policywatchers have argued this year, Minnesota’s school funding system still needs a structural overhaul. The Minnesota Constitution guarantees students a uniform system of adequately funded schools, which the Minnesota Miracle of 1971 accomplished by decreasing reliance on notoriously regressive local property taxes.
A short-lived Minnesota Miracle
The miracle, of course, was short-lived, and inequities quickly began creeping back in. By the mid-1990s, the Legislature again sought to curtail things by passing a law that put a 10-year limit on levies, which up to then were open-ended. Lawmakers assumed that by 2005 a new funding system would be in place.
By then, however, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty had eliminated most of the remains of the funding equalization scheme and large numbers of districts began turning to local voters for the first time in decades. The use of school funding shifts to balance the budget followed soon after.
Was yesterday’s election the start of an anti-anti-tax backlash? It’s too soon, to tell, of course, but Cecconi speculated that lawmakers statewide “were up late watching.” This morning, she guesses, “A lot of them are trying to figure out how to spin this in their direction.”