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Most school districts see levy success

by Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
November 3, 2009

St. Paul, Minn. — Election Day turned out to be a pretty good one for schools. Most of the ballot questions across the state that asked for some form of local funding were approved, even though in many cases, that now means those voters' property taxes will increase.

Of the 93 school funding referendums on ballots across the state yesterday, voters approved at least 51 of them and rejected 26. Some results still weren't known. But the mostly positive results surprised some school leaders, especially considering the bad economy.

Some votes were seeking money to pay for construction – either to fix existing schools or build new ones. Those efforts passed in Hastings and Wayzata, but failed in Menahga and Hermantown.

Hermantown, in fact, was asking for more money than any Minnesota district and it lost by the widest margin of all school questions in the state. Nearly 82-percent of Hermantown voters rejected the $58 million effort, a message that superintendent Brad Johnson said he hears loud and clear.

"From what I've heard from people, the complaints and concerns that were expressed to me was it was too big and too much," Johnson said. "That's why we took it to the community for a vote in the first place. We wanted to see what their thoughts were."

Construction, though, was not the goal for most district. Most were asking voters for local operating funds to make up for relatively flat funding from the state.

In most cases, those pitches came with a tax increase, but still won approval in International Falls, Spring Lake Park, St. Francis and South St. Paul, to name a few. Places where they failed include Moorhead, Austin, and North Branch.

A close look at the results reveals a key trend. Voters were much more generous when districts only asked to renew an existing tax that was about to expire. That tactic allowed schools to say their proposals were not a tax increase. Rather, they were more of a tax continuation.

Some of the highest percentage of 'yes' votes in Minnesota came from districts that were only seeking renewals. In Aitkin, 84 percent voted yes. Maple River and Blue Earth both saw 82 percent. Voters in the Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose district rejected a tax increase last year but approved yesterday's renewal of an earlier levy. The state's largest district, Anoka-Hennepin, also gained a renewal.

In the town of Holdingford, superintendent John Haas is convinced the 'renewal only' approach is why his district won over voters.

"We've gone through a period of rather severe cuts to get out of statutory operating debt. So, I think most people acquainted with our situation realized that we were just trying to keep the status quo and not really add anything," Haas said.

For many districts, going to voters is becoming an almost annual event. Rockford voters approved yesterday's measure on what was the district's fifth try this decade. Pelican Rapids lost a tax hike vote last year by just 144 votes, but this year's questions failed by even larger margins.

And then there's the Perham district in west-central Minnesota. After last year's overwhelming rejection at the polls, the district closed a school in the town of Dent to save money. This year's vote was much closer - but still ended in defeat.

Superintendent Tamara Uselman says that will mean cutting another million dollars, though she's at a loss for how to do that. Uselman says a bad economy is a tough time to ask voters for more money, but she also says that's kind of the norm.

"I don't know very many times when schools need to go out and ask for money in a good year," Uselman said. "If economic conditions are good, the state funds schools well and you don't need to be asking for money."

Uselman said she's ready for the challenge of making more cuts and is trying to keep things in perspective. It will ultimately be up to the school board to decide whether to try again with voters in the future.