I'm trying to answer some 2009 questions before 2009 ends. Here's one: Why did Minnesota school districts have such a relatively great year passing operating levies when the economy was so bad?
Fifty-nine districts asked taxpayers for funding during a year when unemployment jumped and housing prices fell. Forty-two districts -- 71 percent -- got one or more requests approved, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association.
On its surface, it doesn't make sense. The levy plans should have ended up casualties of the worst economy in decades. In 2008, only half the districts who went to taxpayers found success.
What happened in 2009?
"Many of the levy requests were renewals which meant that the property tax impact was minimal, or even no increase," said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts.
Many districts also broke their requests into two questions -- with the first targeted to what they needed to get by the next year, the second to avoid cuts in following years, added Greg Abbott with the Minnesota School Boards Association. "Many of those districts passed at least the first question."
In some places, the district's survival depended on it. Voters last year effectively ended the McLeod West District by killing a levy request. "Heron Lake-Okabena and Ashby probably would have looked at consolidation or major cuts to programs if the levy hadn't passed," said Abbott.
"People know the state isn't funding schools.They also know two years from now, schools may face a state funding cut for the first time ever. So the only option is local support."
Beyond that, there's the interesting phenomenon that districts simply do better in odd-numbered calendar years.
Here's data from the Minnesota School Boards Association. "Total" means the number of Minnesota school districts seeking operating levy money and "% pass" is the percentage of those districts that got one or more approvals.
In an even-numbered year, said Abbott, election news is jammed with articles about national and statewide races. By the time November rolls around, the millionth story on the presidential election is written. People know more about Sarah Palin's hairstyle than whether or not a local school district is trying to pass a referendum."
That hurts school votes. When people enter the polls to vote for president, "they may not even know the school is having an election. And if you don't know what the referendum is for, what is the chance you'd vote to increase your taxes?"
Contrast that to odd-year elections when a school referendum may a town's only vote. "Without the state and national election clutter, people who vote are more informed on what the levy is for," Abbott says. "And usually, informed voters are more likely to vote Yes."
1/ 4 UPDATE: My MPR colleague Tom Weber put together a longer and more complete list of levy votes, including bond levy votes, following the November election. You can find it here.
Communities like the McLeod West district are aging and the number of kids are declining significantly from the highs of the mid-1970s to roughly the mid-1980's. State revenues are reduced, but the cost of maintaining buildings, transporting kids, energy costs, etc. still remain the same--or higher.
As the populations of these smaller communities age and retire, they end up on fixed incomes. An increase in their property taxes when they no longer have school-aged kids is something they can justify as they vote "NO." In addition, many of these smaller communities are seeing their Main Street become a collection of empty storefronts that used to house businesses that created jobs and also paid taxes.
This becomes a very nasty "one-two" combination, even though the school is still a source of community pride at the Friday night game. In general, this is not an easy problem to solve and there are probably other smaller communities that await similar fates down the road.
It is not just about "jobs." It is also about infrastructure, transportation and finding enough skilled people who are willing to relocate into these small communities.
Enrollment decline is the single biggest problem facing school districts. Not even a generous state funding increase could compensate for the enrollment drop (and the per student money that leaves with it) in some districts. The number of high school grads is expected to decline through 2015.
What's interesting is that some MN districts are seeing a jump in their kindergarten numbers: http://bit.ly/8TNBlN. I don't know if that will make up for the decline in other grades but it's worth watching.
Paul / MinnEcon
Bemidji and Grand Rapids are fine examples of regional centers that cater to not only city residents, but also the surrounding communities. In many senses, they are the beneficiaries of the changing economic conditions in small communities.
Many of these small towns have seen their last doctors retire, their last local pharmacist close up shop, the local grocer has become a convenience store, and so on. The ability of a small-town grocer or pharmacy to compete against the likes of Wal-Mart has already been well-documented. Changes in medical technology have made it impractical for a local practitioner to try and keep up beyond the bare basics.
This change has an effect on businesses who may be looking to relocate or expand. Aside from recognizing that their employees and their families are going to have to travel to a regional center for many goods and services, adequate transportation access is another factor.
Obviously, a whole host of factors go into a business making a decision on relocating or expanding, but the regional center often looks more attractive than a small town, sadly.