From Zero to $1,000 in 13 Hours?
Minnesota 2020 continues to examine K-12 education levy requests. On Oct. 12, we reported on the state's inadequate investment in schools that led to 101 levy requests this year. On Oct. 22, we reported on the effect of levy requests on Twin Cities schools. Today, we look at several districts asking voters for levies for the first time. On Friday, Oct. 26, we will profile a district that needs more money but knows voters won't support a levy increase.
While most Minnesota school districts use local taxes to supplement inadequate state funding, two districts have tried to keep the burden off local taxpayers.
It was a noble experiment, but it has failed. Now Sauk Rapids-Rice and Frazee-Vergas are asking voters to keep their schools afloat. The 13 hours that the polls will be open on Nov. 6 will determine their fate.
Sauk Rapids-Rice is running its first levy campaign in many years. Frazee-Vergas has tried to raise money several times and lost. If their levy referenda pass, they will join the 90 percent of Minnesota districts with operating levies.
If they lose? Layoffs, loss of programs, larger class sizes - prospects also faced by the other 99 districts going to voters this fall.
"This referendum sends a strong message that something's not right," said Frazee-Vergas Superintendent Deron Stender. "The financial system isn't working and something needs to change. The voters won't take it."
Minnesota's school funding formula is a three-legged stool of federal and state aid plus local property taxes. Over the past 20 years, the state has sloughed off funding responsibility to the property tax. In recent times, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and conservative lawmakers have rarely given schools enough money to pay their bills, forcing them to go to voters to make up the difference.
Frazee-Vergas, about 55 miles east of Moorhead, is asking voters to go from no levy to $1,000 per student annually for the next five years, a figure proposed by a citizens committee, Stender said.
Losing the levy vote means cutting teachers, cutting programs, cutting sports. It's a situation Frazee-Vergas can't afford.
"Open enrollment is killing us," Stender said. "When I came here two years ago, we had 1,156 students. Now we have 946." He said students left because the district dropped several sports and academic programs and increased class sizes. "You lose programs, you lose kids," Stender said. "It's better for parents to take those kids somewhere else. This is what you see after four years of financial difficulty."
Sauk Rapids-Rice leaders are proud that they haven't sought an operating levy for a long time. Until recently, the growing district hasn't needed one.
That changed as the state funding formula's reliance on local taxes caught up with the district, said Superintendent Greg Vandal. Last year, Sauk Rapids-Rice cut more than $2 million from its budget, losing 35 full-time staff and faculty and raising class sizes to more than 30 in the elementary schools and more than 40 in the high school. "That's not acceptable," Vandal said.
The district is asking for $700 per student over 10 years, enough to reinstate programs and positions lost last year. Losing the election would mean more cuts. "You can't offer competitive services without the money," Vandal said.
Vandal heads P.S. Minnesota, a coalition of education groups that has proposed an alternative to the current formula for legislators to consider.
"One hundred districts are going to the voters for operating money," Vandal said. "That's tangible evidence something is wrong with state funding. If Minnesota adequately funded schools, there would be no schools at the polling place."