Voters approve more money for Minnesota school budgetsby Tim Pugmire, Minnesota Public Radio
Most of the 99 school districts with levy questions on the ballot Tuesday were successful in winning voter approval for local property tax increases. Unofficial returns show voters in at least 54 school districts approved levies to provide more money for schools. But at least two dozen failed, and deep budget cuts are looming in many of those districts.
St. Paul, Minn. — In a year when state lawmakers provided only a slim increase in education funding, nearly one-third of Minnesota's school districts went to local voters for additional revenue. "The first two questions that we needed for survival were approved by our public, and it looked to be a fairly good margin," said Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent Roger Giroux.
Giroux said he felt relieved when all the votes were counted, even though the state's largest district received only part of the support it was seeking.
Voters passed two of the three levy questions. Question one renewed an existing levy at $29 million a year. The second question raised another $15 million a year. A third question, to generate $6 million a year, was rejected, as was a bond referendum. Giroux said Anoka-Hennepin can now avoid closing schools and cutting teachers.
"We're very grateful to our public. We thank them for that," said Giroux. "We realize that that's a handshake, it's a bond of trust. We'll deliver on our end of that, making sure that we're efficient, that we're effective, that we spend those dollars wisely and that they get to watch exactly what we do with each one of those dollars."
The Stillwater school district also won a partial victory Tuesday, when voters passed one ballot question to continue an existing levy. But they defeated two other questions that would have increased operating revenue.
Other successful districts included Bloomington, Edina, Hibbing, Mankato and Marshall.
Voters in the White Bear Lake school district overwhelmingly approved a levy for $11.7 million a year for five years. Superintendent Ted Blaesing said the district can simply maintain its current budget.
"I wish I could say that it's going to allow us to restore or to do all these wonderful new programs, but that's not the case," Blaesing said. "It's basically going to allow us to provide quality educational experiences for our kids. And right now we don't anticipate restoring a large number of things."
The stakes were high in many school districts, but there were none higher than in the Frazee-Vergas district in northwestern Minnesota. School leaders there had considered dissolving the rural district or merging with a neighboring school system.
But after five defeats in seven years, district voters approved a levy for $1 million a year for five years. Frazee-Vergas superintendent Deron Stender said the district responded to a crisis.
"I think people were fed up," said Stender. "It's similar to a fire. And that fire kept burning for the last seven years and eventually it's got to burn itself out, and we were getting to that point, or people are going to put it out."
Defeat came hard in several districts. Voters rejected levy measures in Bemidji, Brooklyn Center, Elk River, Prior Lake and St. Cloud.
The Robbinsdale school district's effort fell victim to an organized opposition. A stealth group called Citizens Acting for Responsible Education hired an Iowa-based consultant to orchestrate a referendum defeat. Robbinsdale Superintendent Stan Mack accused the opponents of conducting an unethical campaign of misinformation.
"We're going to have to communicate the message that children will be harmed as a result of people being misled," Mack said. "And there were blatant lies that were used within this effort."
Mack said levy referendums are not the right way to fund public schools. He and other school leaders say it's now time for state lawmakers to step up with a better financing solution.
That plea will likely be repeated at a Capitol news conference Wednesday. P.S. Minnesota, a coalition of education groups and parents will offer its take on the referendum results as well as the need for greater state funding.
Last year, the group estimated the state should increase its current commitment of more than $6 billion a year by at least another $1 billion.
- Morning Edition, 11/07/2007, 7:20 a.m.