Lack of a vote a year ago may imperil Duluth school levyby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
Duluth school officials are holding their breath over a proposed school funding levy. The district hopes to renew or even increase a levy that's been helping fund school programming since 2005. But some fear a backlash from district residents, who are angry because they never got to vote last year on an expensive, long-range facilities plan.
Duluth, Minn. — On an east Duluth lawn, you can find an eight-foot dinosaur devouring someone. The dinosaur is a homemade protest. It's supposed to be the Duluth School board, and its unfortunate lunch is a district resident the homeowner has dubbed "Johnny Taxpayer."
Johnny Taxpayer might be a bit miffed with the board that approved a $293 million school improvement plan last year. The board decided to raise residents' property tax bills for the next 20 years without putting the plan up for a public vote.
Now, the district is back, asking for extra money for teachers, instruction and activities. And some think Johnny Taxpayer is ready to bite back.
"I think that the operations levy this fall is doomed," said Harry Welty, a former school board member and a leading critic of Duluth's costly long range facilities plan.
Voters will decide in November whether to renew or increase funding for school programs. It's not a vote on the building plan, but Welty said it might as well be.
"You have to go back to last year and the refusal to give people a chance to vote on the single biggest building plan ever contemplated in the state's history," he said.
And, Welty said, the public might be feeling a little pinched already.
"This is a terrible time to go to an awful lot of people on fixed incomes and ask them to vote for more money for the school district's operations," Welty said.
Gary Glass agrees. He's a current member of the school board and another opponent of the expensive facilities plan. He's been pushing for spending less on buildings.
Glass said if the district were spending less on buildings, it might have enough money to pay for programs.
"If we stop scrimping and putting every nickel into the building account, and let the savings be put onto programming, then we may not need that levy," Glass said.
But school board chair Nancy Nilsen said the district does need the spending levy. Even at the lowest levy request amount, the district would still face another $3 million in cuts to balance the budget.
In the past six years, the district has cut overall spending by $21 million. Nilsen said the fat is out of the budget.
"We have done everything that we can to cut away from the students," Nilsen said. "We are now to the point where it's going to affect the way that we educate."
The board has a list of dire potential changes to make if the levy fails, including a four-day school week, or closing schools altogether in January, with longer days when school is in session.
Nilsen said issuing bonds to pay for buildings and raising the levy to pay for teachers and programs are separate issues.
"I would hope that our community would understand the difference between being upset over the facilities, and being able to educate the students the way that they need to be educated for the future," Nilsen said.
Mimi Larson helped form a citizens group to promote the levy, "Vote Yes for Kids." She worries about the fallout from the facilities debate.
"I'm hoping that there won't be that crossover, because they are two distinct issues," she said.
Larson worries some people will be confused about just what they're voting on.
"I'm really concerned about it, and there is a distinct difference," Larson said. "The money from the levies will not go to fund the long-range facilities plan. And that primarily is the biggest argument that is being put out there. Levy is for learning, and bonding is for buildings."
Despite the noise, the community might be listening. Larson claims to be getting a positive response from residents she meets while distributing flyers.
A very unscientific poll by the local Chamber of Commerce found strong support for a triple-sized excess levy among the audience at a recent chamber forum. The real test, of course, comes on Election Day, Nov. 4.
- All Things Considered, 10/20/2008, 4:36 p.m.