Schools making final push to win funding supportby Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — More than five dozen Minnesota school districts have questions on next Tuesday's ballot that ask voters to approve some form of local funding, and in many cases approval would mean higher property taxes.
Schools say they're wary to go to voters in such bad economic times, but they say their own financial pictures would only worsen if they lose those votes.
The area outside Tim Collins' office is like any school district office -- except for the large animal costumes, including a chicken, an aardvark and a skunk.
Collins is superintendent of Hastings Schools. He's trying to draw attention to next Tuesday elections that will ask voters to approve more than $19 million in construction, mostly on repairs like new roofs and windows.
He's convinced volunteers to wear the costumes, in public, and hold signs in support of the vote. He hasn't sent anyone out in the aardvark costume yet because he can't think of anything that rhymes with aardvark. But the sign that goes with the skunk costume was much easier.
"Don't be a stinker. Vote yes on November 3," Collins said. "Is that what it's getting down to being a superintendent in the state of Minnesota? Yes, there are times when that's what it's getting down to. I never apologize for drawing attention to an issue."
Getting the word out is just one challenge. Another is that the economy has made it a bad time to be asking for more money. Schools though, note that their state funding has stayed flat in recent years, while costs like teacher pay and health care keep rising.
The Heron Lake-Okabena district in southwest Minnesota considered moving to a four-day week this year to save even more money. The public, though, soured to that idea, so the district is instead asking for a hike that would add about $363 a year to the property taxes for a $100,000 home.
Still, Superintendent Becky Cselovszki said the 4-day week idea, and other ideas for more cuts, will have to be reconsidered if the vote fails.
"We can continue to operate with less," Cselovszki said. "I mean, we can. However, the quality and the programs and your student's education will suffer. There is no doubt in my mind."
Other districts are making similar pitches while also trying to show all they've done to cut their budgets. St. Francis notes things like fewer calendars being printed to save money. Zumbrota-Mazeppa says elementary art will be among the first cuts if its levy fails.
One tactic is to only ask for a renewal of an expiring levy instead of asking for a new, higher tax. That lets the district say it's not a tax increase, it's more of a tax continuation.
The Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose district outside the metro has tried and failed twice in the past two years to pass a tax increase. So this year, leaders are only asking for a renewal of the current tax.
Superintendent Jim Bauck said the economy is driving the pared-back effort.
"We know that businesses are struggling, our residents are struggling [and] we've had a number of foreclosures," Bauck said. "[It's] just not a good time to ask for a tax increase. Families are still struggling and I think we just want to hang on to what we have."
Some superintendents have posted letters on their Web sites that explain the upcoming election, but which read more like an apology for even having the vote.
Throughout the state, 67 districts will ask for some kind of local funding next Tuesday. The Minnesota School Boards Association tracks those votes. Spokesman Greg Abbott said the fact that districts even try in such a bad economy is a reaction to the state's flat funding.
"So they know the only way they can make it go is if their local community steps up and says 'yeah, we'll keep the district going,'" Abbott said.
But for all the reasons to not go to voters this year, Abbott adds there's one reason why districts should. It's an off-year for elections, meaning these proposals will be the only thing on the ballot in many communities. If districts can get the most-informed and supportive voters to the polls -- even if they have to wear a chicken suit to do it -- they usually stand a better chance of winning approval.
- All Things Considered, 10/27/2009, 4:35 p.m.