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MN2020 - Levy - Why Bother?
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Levy - Why Bother?

October 26, 2007 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Minnesota 2020 continues to examine state K-12 education funding and the resulting 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. On Oct. 24, we looked at several districts going to voters for levies for the first time. Today, we look at districts that know voters won't support a levy increase.

Running a school levy election in some places is like asking a beauty queen for a date: After too many rebuffs, what's the point in trying again?

Jordan and North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale are among eight Minnesota districts that ran unsuccessful levy campaigns in 2006 and then decided not to ask voters again this year.  Both cited voter antipathy to higher property taxes. Both blame a failed state funding system.

"We have to go out for this money to get what we need for education, and people just get tired of it. They say, 'Here they are again with their hands out'," said Cathy Miller, North St. Paul's school board chair. "Education should be funded by the state, not through property taxes."

North St. Paul won an $845-per-student levy in 2003 that will remain in effect six more years. Last year, the school board asked voters for $600 more annually for 10 years. It also asked for $8 million in technology bonding over 10 years. Both requests were voted down.

The district used community meetings, mailings, phone calls, yard signs and rallies to promote the proposed levy.
 
"We did all that we could to get the information out to the public," Miller said. "The margin was 60 percent no to 40 percent yes. It was a pretty sizeable amount."

She blamed strong anti-tax sentiment as well as the district's aging population. Senior citizens "support schools, but on a fixed income, they just can't do it," Miller said.

She said the district may seek an operating levy increase next year if the public shows support. But that hasn't developed yet despite three consecutive years of budget reductions that have slashed 40 classroom teachers, transportation, extracurricular activities, administration and the Reading Recovery program. The special education coordinator was eliminated, among many other cuts, Miller said.

Meanwhile, average class sizes have jumped to 40 in high school, about 35 for grades 4 through 8 and about 25 for the primary grades.

"We're making due," Miller said. "We're making the cuts that are necessary, but with a 1 percent increase from the state (next year), we will have to make more substantial cuts."

Jordan's school board chair said last year's levy failed because the district had too much money in reserve.
"The main reason it did not pass is because we weren't desperate enough; we didn't let our fund balance get low enough," Ira Beckman said. "We decided to wait a year and let the fund drop lower, which will happen this year. Then we'll run a levy next fall."

Nearly 70 percent of voters turned down Jordan's 2006 levy request of $425 per student. "We weren't even in the ballpark," Beckman said. "We decided there was no reason to go out this year."

Beckman said the growing community had a $5 million fund balance several years ago, but four years of inadequate funds from the state dropped it to $1.5 million last year. "That wasn't low enough for voters," he said. "It will drop to under $1 million this year" as the district budgets $17.1 million for its 1,600 students.

So far the district has made minor cuts -- "half a custodian position, 10 percent of supplies, things like that," Beckman said. But if a levy doesn't pass next year, he added, "things will get a little bit nasty. We'll have to cut stuff that will have an effect on students."

With its hefty fund balance, Jordan has maintained a $1-per-student operating levy, which allows the district to qualify for state grants. But Jordan's experience shows how severe underfunding by the state has forced once financially stable districts to beg voters for cash just to provide a proper education.

"We just hope that the Legislature and governor will provide the funding that they should," Miller said.

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