Some districts hope 'smaller is better' will get levies passedby Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
More than 50 school districts across Minnesota will ask voters to approve ballot questions next month - most of them ask for a property tax increase.
The referenda are familiar territory for at least a dozen districts who have tried to pass previous levies and failed.
Some of those failures were as recently as last year. For those giving it another try, one tactic they hope will work is to ask for less this time.
Remer, Minn. — As a group of kids played last week outside Remer Elementary School in northern Minnesota, near Grand Rapids, one of them was able to confirm that the last one down the slide is still, in fact, a rotten egg.
At the same time, the school's chief custodian Lynn DeBoer was inside getting ready for another winter. She warns visitors to watch their heads to avoid low-hanging pipes in the rooms that lead to the decades-old boilers that heat the old building.
The boilers use steam, which is unpredictable and makes it hard to warm the building, especially during games or concerts that draw big crowds of people giving off their own heat.
"There is no way to control the heat from the steam," she noted.
However, if voters in the Northland School District approve next month's referendum, the district will replace these boilers a with newer, more efficient heating system.
It's an $810,000 bond, which works out to about $7 a year more for property taxes on a $100,000 house. That amount - $810,000, is a far cry from previous ballot questions that have failed in Northland.
District voters have rejected six bond questions since 1999, and all six were for millions of dollars more. ($10.5 million in 1999; $11.9 million in 2000; $12.8 million in 2001; $7.5 million in 2002; $11.5 million in 2004; and $12.2 million in 2005)
Northland Superintendent Mike Doro hopes this year's drastically smaller attempt will be more palatable to voters.
"What we brought out was what we truly feel we needed right now, which is the boilers and getting some control on the cost of heating," he said, during a recent interview.
That tactic of 'going for less' is evident this year around Minnesota: Bemidji, Elk River, Montgomery-Lonsdale and St. Louis County are among the districts that lost levies last year and are trying to pass smaller ones this year.
So is Robbinsdale, in the Minneapolis suburbs.
Supporters in Robbinsdale even make that point in letters to the community: They're asking for less money this year than in the levy that failed last year. If this year's passes, property taxes on a $245,000 house would increase $180 a year.
"The families that are opposed to referendums because they simply can't afford it, I understand every bit of the way," says Robbinsdale Superintendent Stan Mack.
Mack blames the state for not keeping pace on funding and forcing him to go to homeowners for more.
"I feel sad and embarrassed that we have to ask senior citizens on limited incomes to make a decision about that additional contribution," he says.
The other complication this year is the bad economy. However, it's impossible to conclude that all levies will fail in a bad economy, or even that districts trying for a smaller amount will gain passage. Very local issues also have to be considered.
Supporters in Robbinsdale say a vocal anti-levy campaign last year helped sink that vote, which is why the pro-levy committee in Robbinsdale hopes to raise at least $100,000 for this year's campaign.
In Northland, superintendent Mike Doro says all those previous failed votes brought with them complaints that the district was asking for too much.
"Every time we went back to try something, almost every time, people would say 'if you had it just a little smaller.' The reality was a little smaller didn't help," noted Doro. "It was either an idea that was supported throughout the district or it wasn't."
Doro says getting everyone on the same page is especially hard in Northland because there are issues that date back to the 1960's, when the district was created by combining schools in Remer and Longville.
As the election approaches, many districts statewide have laid out budget cuts they say they'll need to make if their levies fail next month.
Another option, if they fail, is to go back to voters again in the future. If that happens, one decision they're certain to face is whether to ask for less that next time around.
- Morning Edition, 10/23/2008, 7:20 a.m.