The Big Story Blog

In Duluth, citizens vote money for parks, not schools

Posted at 11:34 AM on November 9, 2011 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Education, Taxes

Duluth voters Tuesday said yes to parks and libraries and no to schools. What happened?

MPR News reporter Tom Robertson writes:

While school measures were shot down, 57 percent of Duluth voters said they were willing to pay more taxes for improvements in parks and library services -- 3.2 percent more for a tax hike will raise $2.6 million dollars annually. And city leaders have promised the fund will free up more money to keep two branch libraries from being shut down in January.

The Duluth News Tribune reports:

District officials and the School Board asked voters to approve up to $5.6 million for schools each year for five years, all from local property taxes, to help reduce class sizes, buy new textbooks and improve math and science efforts.

The extra money would have helped eliminate a $4 million to $5 million shortfall for fiscal 2013.

But voters resoundingly said no, leaving a $366-per-pupil levy in place into 2012. That's less than half the statewide average per-pupil levy of $864, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

"There's too much money floating around in the district that hasn't been properly accounted for," said Pete Mataya, a Central Hillside resident. "Until a board gets in there and lays out precisely why we need more money, I won't vote for more tax increases."

It was going to be hard for voters to accept tax increases for everything. It likely came down to which institutions were better trusted. Some of that goes back the past few years over the district's "Red Plan" effort to close some school buildings and build others to meet future enrollment projections. Critics had long demanded a public vote on the plan.

Before the vote, we reached out to Minnesotans in MPR's Public Insight Network to see how they planned to vote. All the Duluth responses we got were pro-levy. Obviously, the folks who reached out to us Monday were in the minority on Tuesday.

Still, the comments we got before and after the vote were telling.

Claudia Martin told us before the election she would vote for the levy, writing, "A vote for improving education is an investment in the future for all of us."

We asked her today what happened. She put the finger on the Legislature's move this summer to end the homestead tax credit, which effectively raised property taxes on many homeowners.

That move helped close the state's budget gap but also "set the stage for defeat of the school levy which would have added to the increased taxes on property owners," Martin said.

It's not clear where Duluth schools head next. But before the vote, resident Anne Krafthefer laid out the practical dilemma.

Our high school classes have as many as fifty-five students in a regular education class, middle schools have nearly forty, and elementary classrooms are fighting to stay closer to thirty than thirty-five students. I have a fifth grade class with thirty students, several with special needs.

Our classes continue to have twenty-thirty per cent of the students dealing with mental health issues, which is a reflection of the state figures on this issue. It is impossible to deliver the highest level of education to each child in these circumstances.

In my opinion, we are balancing state budgets on the backs of our students. They are the most precious resource we have...Just one year of learning in a classroom that has too many children with great need can impact the future of many children.

Two days later that reality hasn't changed.

About Paul Tosto

Paul Tosto

Paul Tosto writes the Big Story Blog for MPR News. He joined the newsroom in 2008 after more than 20 years reporting on education, politics and the economy for news wires and newspapers across the country.

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