School districts defend funding, ballot referendumsby Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Today is the last day Minnesota school districts can decide whether to put tax questions on the November ballot.
More than a third of all districts, nearly 130, expect to do so.
Several superintendents say they were thrown for a loop when some state lawmakers questioned the need for such levies.
The nearly 130 districts with ballot questions number the most in more than a decade, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association.
That raised a flag for Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, who chairs the House education funding committee and helped write the final state education budget. That budget includes increases for schools, including a $50 increase in the per-pupil formula.
Speaking recently with Minnesota Public Radio, he questioned the need for some of those referendums.
"When you're making these additional expenditures at the statewide level, the property tax is not to be used to go back for a second bite of the apple," Garofalo said.
His comments set off discussion among superintendents and other school leaders across the state.
Gary Amoroso, a former Lakeville superintendent who now lobbies on behalf of superintendents, said schools appreciate the funding boost, but he's heard from several superintendents who are concerned that Garofalo's statements were overly broad and don't account for the specific needs of a school system.
While there was boosted funding this year, Amoroso said district funding has been mostly flat for the past decade and didn't keep pace with inflation. Even districts seeking an increase this year are usually just trying to recoup some of what's been lost, he said.
Garofalo said his comments were aimed at countering the House DFL and some school officials who were using DFL talking points.
"You had Democrats touring the state, falsely claiming that Governor Dayton and the Legislature cut education, when in fact we increased it," Garofalo said.
DFLers dispute that characterization.
"I don't recall anybody at that press conference and certainly not me anywhere saying there was a cut."
Mindy Greiling of Roseville, the top ranking DFL member on the K12 finance committee, said the DFL was focusing on the $700 million the state will borrowing over the next two years from schools to balance its budget. That's a move that will force more districts to borrow for cash flow needs, and cut into that extra money they're getting this year.
School districts leaders say the dispute puts them in a lurch.
"It's very frustrating, and it's very confusing to the voters and it comes at a time when it's simply not appreciated," said Dennis Carlson, superintendent of Anoka-Hennepin, the state's largest school district.
Anoka-Hennepin has three questions on the ballot. One would renew a levy that brings in $48 million annually. The other two would increase taxes for additional spending.
The first ballot question is a must, district leaders said, because losing $48 million would mean closing five more schools and laying off more than 560 teachers.
Most referendums across the state also seek renewals of current levies, for which there's no net tax increase. But several districts seek additional funds. Anoka is doing both.
Garofalo isn't concerned over renewals as he is about districts seeking additional funds in a year when the state budget boosted funding to schools. On Friday, he said Anoka's request for renewal is reasonable.
Carlson is concerned the public won't discern the nuance if Anoka seeks both a levy renewal and an increase. He's worried voters may turn down all three ballot questions if they've been misinformed.