Campaign 2010

Results mixed for levies in Minn. school districts

by Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
November 3, 2010

St. Paul, Minn. — Results were mixed for school districts at the polls Tuesday when 77 districts were seeking operating funds that would have raised property taxes in most cases to help fund day-to-day operations.

Levies passed in more than 40 of those districts.

In the five years Keith Lester has led the Brooklyn Center School District, he's come to proclaim his district as the poster child for failed referenda. Voters had defeated six consecutive levies during that time. Yesterday, the streak was extended to seven.

"I don't know how to get it across to the voters, but I'm also totally aware that we live in a high-poverty area," Lester said. "Even though the increase in taxes wasn't huge, for some people who are on fixed incomes it's a big deal. So, am I disappointed? Yes. Am I disheartened? Absolutely not."

School district leaders like Lester had said the 101 operating levies on the ballot across the state yesterday were necessary to keep day-to-day functions going, or to restore recent cuts because of tight budgets. They argued flat state funding hadn't kept pace with increases in costs for things like salaries and health care, so higher property taxes would supplement what was missing from the state.

"Even though the increase in taxes wasn't huge, for some people who are on fixed incomes it's a big deal. So, am I disappointed? Yes. Am I disheartened? Absolutely not."
- Keith Lester, Brooklyn Center

Based on yesterday's results, it's hard to draw any substantial conclusions about how sympathetic voters were or were not, to the plight of districts. Forty-three of the 77 districts across Minnesota that were seeking operating funds won at least partial approval of those funds.

In the metro area, voters said yes in the Mounds View and Hopkins districts, but said 'no' in West St. Paul, North Branch, Forest Lake and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan. Rosemount was the largest district in the state seeking a referendum.

In Elk River and Lakeville, voters approved the first question on the ballot, which would keep an existing levy in place without a tax hike, but rejected a second question that would increase that levy.

Lakeville superintendent Gary Amoroso said the rejection of that second question means his district will face a deficit next year of at least $15 million.

"I believe the message that we received as well as other districts received is 'we can continue to provide the resources we have been providing, but at this point we're not in a position to provide any other resources," Amoroso said.

In outstate Minnesota, there were overwhelming defeats for the Rochester, Milaca and Sleepy Eye districts, but voters in Fergus Falls, St. James and Mountain Iron-Buhl passed levies.

Leaders in the northern Minnesota town of Carlton had said the future of their district was at stake with their request, and voters responded with nearly 60 percent approval.

Greg Abbott with the Minnesota School Boards Association said the mixed results speak to the difficulty districts have in getting their message out during a year when bigger ticket items like a governor's race and all legislative seats are on the ballot.

"Because, if a voter goes to the polls and they don't know what the levy is for, they're probably going to vote against it," Abbott said. "If they got to the polls and they know what it's for, they're more likely to vote for it."

Abbott said that's the advantage in an odd year, versus the even year. He said in the odd year, you're the only game in town and that's the issue most people know about.

There were also 11 districts seeking bonds to fund repairs or construction projects. Among that number, smaller requests were successful, including in the towns of Badger and Roseau. The more expensive efforts failed, including in Ely, Forest Lake and Owatonna. Owatonna wanted to spend $30 million to buy a shuttered college campus and use the buildings for future space needs.

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