Christopher Magan Pioneer Press
Minnesota schools are hoping to continue their streak of winning voter support for tax levies in odd-year November elections.
In Ramsey, Dakota and Washington counties, 10 districts have 17 levies on the ballot to fund school operations, building improvements and technology. Statewide, more than 100 requests will be on the ballot.
But 2017 has proven to be a challenging year so far for getting voters’ support. Just 36 percent of school capital levies — 13 out of 36 — have been approved.
State law allows districts to ask for capital funding throughout the year, but operating levies are typically confined to the fall ballot.
Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, said it is not unusual for school leaders to put tax requests on odd-year ballots, when there are fewer contests competing for voters’ attention.
Tax levies are an important way for residents to weigh in on the management of their local schools.
“This is really the opportunity for citizens to say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ ” Schneidawind said. “It comes down to the connection school leaders have with their communities and how well they sell the need for these (tax) requests.”
The school levy requests come after Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature have increased education funding by roughly $2 billion a year since 2011. But Schneidawind notes that Minnesota’s per-pupil spending, when adjusted for inflation, remains close to what it was a decade ago.
Tight district budgets, new programs for early learners and growing technology needs are the driving forces behind requests this fall, he said.
Click on a school district to learn more:
NEED MORE MONEY TO OPERATE
Leaders of the South Washington County school district are two years into a plan they hope will result in an additional $900 per pupil in operating revenue, or about $12 million a year. The push began in 2015, when faced with a looming multimillion-dollar shortfall, the school board decided to plan two operating-levy increases to stabilize district finances.
Voters backed the first increase, $525 per student, in November 2015, and district leaders hope they’ll support another $375 per pupil increase Nov. 7.
Dan Pyan, district finance director, says the increase is necessary to offset the gap between growing expenses and state and local revenues. The district has tapped savings in the past to avoid drastic cuts, but that’s no longer an option.
“There is not flexibility for us to weather storms like some other districts,” said Pyan, who added the district needs to replenish its savings account.
South Washington County is one of six districts in Ramsey, Dakota and Washington counties asking voters for more operating revenue. It is joined by Burnsville-Eagan-Savage, Forest Lake, Hastings, Inver Grove Heights and South St. Paul.
Without funding boosts, those districts may be forced to cut back on staff and services and increase class sizes.
Officials in South St. Paul schools have spent the past two years making the case to residents that the district needs more operating money to continue current services.
Dave Webb, South St. Paul superintendent, said residents have warmed to the idea.
Part of South St. Paul’s levy push has been explaining to residents how small bedroom communities are challenged when it comes to school property taxes, Webb said. Because the district does not have a lot of business and industry, a larger percentage of the school tax burden falls on residential property owners.
“Local funding has become more critical than ever,” Webb said. “To not have equal tax rates for school districts is a flawed system.”
Webb is one of several suburban school leaders to lobby the Legislature to provide more state aid to equalize community’s property taxes, but so far, the issue has gained little traction.
NEED MORE SPACE FOR STUDENTS
Minnesota’s growing focus on educating the youngest learners by adding funding for preschool and all-day kindergarten has led to a space crunch in districts across the state. This year, four districts in the east metro are asking voters to approve capital levies to add or improve classroom spaces.
In Roseville, the anticipation of 1,000 new students over the next decade has school officials planning $144 million in improvements and additions. The Hastings and Mounds View districts are also looking to upgrade or add space, while Forest Lake hopes to overhaul its athletics and performing arts facilities.
Roseville Superintendent Aldo Sicoli says housing is turning over in his community, with older residents leaving and younger families moving in. The district’s enrollment has already grown nearly 19 percent in the past decade and is the highest since 1983.
That means the district needs to upgrade and add onto buildings, many of which were built 50 years ago when the school day looked a lot different.
“We talk about three needs: aging buildings, a need for space and a need for more appropriate learning environments,” Sicoli said.
NEED TO KEEP PACE WITH TECHNOLOGY
In the past decade, tablet and laptop computers have transformed classrooms. Last year, east-metro districts spent more than $17 million providing technology to students and staff.
Much of that expense is covered by voter-approved capital levies dedicated to student technology. The Inver Grove Heights, South St. Paul and South Washington County districts are asking voters to approve capital levies to fund classroom technology and other supplies.
Webb, South St. Paul superintendent, says computers have been an essential instructional tool for his teachers. It allows lessons to be tailored to students’ specific needs and lets them work at their own pace.
It also helps students develop the digital literacy they will need throughout life.
“It becomes almost another world language students need to learn to speak to do well in college and the workplace,” Webb said. “Those are wonderful opportunities, and we think they should be available for all kids.”