Schools say levies have become matter of survivalby Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — When Minnesota voters go to the polls on Tuesday, many will be asked to approve higher property taxes for school districts.
The property tax hikes, once called "excess levies," were designed to fund initiatives above day-to-day operations. But many school district leaders say there's nothing excess about them any more. Some school district officials say they'll find it tough to operate without them.
In the northern Minnesota town of Carlton, Superintendent Peter Haapala has been blunt with area residents about the district's financial situation.
"Essentially, we're looking at the survival of the district," said Haapala, who became superintendent over the summer.
Haapala hopes voters will approve a levy that would increase property taxes by about $243 a year on a $150,000 house.
"Without the referendum passing, we'll be in a very tough situation in order to continue," he said. "We'd have to make some very drastic reductions if the referendum doesn't pass."
Some of those cuts already have been laid out. Carlton's finances are so bad it has what is called 'statutory operating debt.' The district is running a deficit of $786,000, or more than 2.5 percent of its $5 million budget. As a result, district officials must submit reports to the state, detailing how they will retire the debt.
While those plans include frank admissions that the district didn't do enough budget-cutting in recent years to address declining enrollments, the bulk of the reports outline what steps officials would take if the referendum fails, including closing one of Carlton's two schools, as well as cutting all extra-curricular activities and fifth grade band.
Carlton is one of the more dramatic examples dire finances, but it's not alone in seeking more funds from property owners. Across Minnesota, 82 school districts have questions on the ballot Tuesday. Some would fund repairs or building projects, but most seek higher taxes to fund operations.
The message to voters is similar from district leaders: The levies aren't for luxuries. Instead, they aim to preserve current programs or restore recent cuts.
They note state education funding has stayed flat in recent years and hasn't kept pace with rising costs for things like salaries and health insurance.
In Moorhead, Superintendent Lynne Kovash said districts like hers also face the fact that even voter approval won't solve all the budget problems.
"Even if this passes, you still have financial concerns we still have to confront," Kovash said. "So it's not that we'd sit back and say 'this passes' and business as usual. We'd still have to look at changing some of our systems."
The Moorhead levy would increase yearly property taxes on a $150,000 home by about $269 dollars raising $5.25 million its first year. Kovash said one of the things a 'yes' vote would allow her to do is return the band and choir instructor jobs at Moorhead High to full-time positions.
But for now, Kovash said she's in a waiting mode. Tuesday's vote's outcome will determine how she spends the rest of her year and the extent to which she'll have to cut the budget.
Kovash also bemoans the time spent on the campaign to promote the levy.
"It's almost like we're taking the whole fall -- where we should be concentrating on what's happening for students in our schools -- and really focusing on these referenda in order to survive as a school district," she said.
Districts and superintendents should get used to spending a lot of their time running levy campaigns, said Scott Croonquist, a lobbyist for Twin Cities area districts. He said state budget forecasts are still dire, meaning districts probably won't stop asking voters for more money any time soon.
"Frankly there are a whole lot more districts that probably wanted to run a referendum this fall, that felt they needed to," Croonquist said. "But they knew it would be a very tough climate, and also it's an election year where we have a governor's race on the ballot and all the legislative seats. So it's tough in that environment for a school district to get its message out."
Croonquist said he doesn't know of any of organized effort to defeat referenda in the districts he lobbies for, but added there doesn't necessarily have to be one to doom the effort. He said it's always a bad time to ask people to raise their taxes when the economic conditions are tough.
- Morning Edition, 10/27/2010, 6:25 a.m.