Voters approve 10 school questions; reject threeby Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
One school district is headed out of debt and another two will soon merge. Those are just some of the results of school-related referenda that were on the ballot yesterday in Minnesota.
Most of the questions passed, but in the few places where they failed, districts now face more tough decisions.
St. Paul, Minn. — The final count was ten school ballot questions passed - three didn't. But those three were whoppers.
In the Brooklyn Center district in Hennepin County, voters rejected their sixth operating levy in three years. This one, which failed by a 684-504 tally, would have raised property taxes by about $65 a year for the average homeowner.
Superintendent Keith Lester wonders if that's some kind of record. He bemoans opponents who he said spread misinformation about the levy, but he puts even more blame on the state for what he calls an inadequate funding system for schools.
"We're the only political group that has to go to the voters to get money," he said Tuesday night, shortly after learning of the loss.
"Everyone else raises taxes - the county can do it, the city can do it, the state can do it. And we go to the voters, and if the voters are ticked off about taxes there's only one place they can express their disgust."
Lester said the district already made budget cuts this year, so the loss should only affect next year's spending.
But just down the Mississippi River about 50 or so miles, Stan Slessor was celebrating a big win. He is superintendent of Red Wing Schools.
After years of budget cuts, Slessor said the two levies that passed by big margins Tuesday will get the district out of debt and reduce class sizes. And that's not all.
"We had rapidly improving test scores last year," he noted. "We believe now we can continue that, where as had this gone down and we'd have to make more budget cuts - it's very difficult to keep improving student performance," Slessor said.
The first question asked for a $936-per-pupil levy and passed with 63 percent of the vote; the second question, aimed primarily at reducing class sizes, asked for an additional $175 per student, and garnered 56 percent of the vote.
Another 'yes' vote in west-central Minnesota means the Ortonville and Bellingham school districts will merge next school year. The final vote was 476-186. Bellingham students were already going to Ortonville for seventh grade and up, so officials say they think all should go smoothly.
The rest of Tuesday's questions were bonds that raise money for capital, or construction costs. Six of them were so-called 'one-day bonds.'
These a quirky kind of bond question where the district only asks for $495,000 and doesn't require a tax increase - all six of those passed easily, in the Cromwell-Wright, Foley, Hill City, Roseau, South Koochiching-Rainy River, and Warroad districts.
Osakis district voters approved a $6.7 million bond for renovations, but St. James voters rejected a similar bond in their district.
Still, on a day when turnout was light, it was the largest bond question on the ballot that failed the most spectacularly; Nearly 70 percent of voters in the Rennville County District in southwest Minnesota rejected a nearly $20 million bond.
If approved, the district would have replaced two current school buildings with one new one.
One of the buildings dates back 107 years, and superintendent Lance Bagstad says neither structure has a sprinkler system - which caught the eye of the Fire Marshall during a recent inspection.
"I see that we have roofs to repair, we have plumbing issues, we have electrical issues, we have single-pane windows," he noted. "We're running very inefficiently."
Bagstad said it is not a crisis yet, but he is not ruling out another attempt at the polls, either.
Anyone looking to make the results into some kind of predictor for what will happen in November should think again, according to Charlie Kyte.
"The September election results and the November election results - one does not make the other a trend," said Kyte, who heads the Minnesota Association of School Administrators - which is primarily made up of superintendents.
He said the primary election was low-key enough to give districts a fighting chance to get out the word on their referenda. But what about in November, when the ballot includes high-profile races for President and U.S. Senate?
"I think by and large the [superintendents] are very worried about how to get fair attention for this election for them."
Voters in at least 45 Minnesota districts will see school questions in less than two months. That's because many current levies are about to expire.
If districts want to keep that source of funding going, they need to go to the voters and ask in November, regardless of the attention it generates.
- Morning Edition, 09/10/2008, 6:50 a.m.