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School Levies: An Unjust System

November 05, 2008 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

From the mightiest city to the tiniest town the call is the same: It just doesn't have to be this way.

Voters Tuesday approved property tax increases in 23 of the 42 Minnesota school districts that went to the polls asking for enough money to pay for basic supplies. State underinvestment has choked Minnesota's education system to the extent that districts as large as Minneapolis and as small as Ogilvie need to raise taxes just to buy textbooks.

"This is not fair, it's not right," said Peggy LaVanger, chair of the pro-levy campaign at Rockford Public Schools. "Why do we have to continually beg for money? We're telling our kids they're not important."

Rockford lost its election by about 1,000 votes. Officials will now cut about $900,000 out of a budget that was cut by $1 million last year.

Osseo Area Schools, which cut 160 teachers and closed two elementary schools last year, saw its levy go down by nearly 3,000 votes.

Tammy Epley, the chair of the pro-levy campaign in Osseo, said her district serves seven communities, each with individual identities and needs making a levy campaign difficult.

She wonders why a campaign needs to be run at all. "This is not fair to taxpayers," she said. "The state has to live up to its promises so we don't have to keep coming back over and over again."

Since 2003, school districts have seen an inflation-adjusted drop of 13 percent in state aid. Even with steep hikes in voter approved levies, schools have 4.4 percent less in income since 2003, leaving nearly every district vulnerable to deep budget cuts.

In 2001, lawmakers decided the state would take over school funding. If taxpayers wanted extras, they could vote in tax levies to pay for them. When budget problems arose in 2003, the state backed away from its funding promise and many schools were left without enough money to run their business. They turned to the only source of income they had: Voter-approved "extra" levies. Today, most districts fund 15 percent to 20 percent of their budgets with these levies, making elections do-or-die situations.

"To go to voters for basic operating funds is a travesty," said Barclay Carrier, the chair of the pro-levy campaign in St. Cloud.

"Most of our supporters are angry that we have to (run a levy campaign)" said Paul Roelfing, chair of the campaign in the Minneapolis Public School district. "This is not an excess levy. This is to fund things like textbooks, things the state should be funding."

Both St. Cloud and Minneapolis passed their requests.

Although he is glad his levy passed, Joe Tatalovich, the chair of the St. Louis Park pro-levy campaign, said that the money isn't for extras.

"Our levy just stabilizes the district," he said. "It doesn't add much and gives some insurance against stagnant funding from the state so if the budget is bad and they don't give us any increase (even against inflation), we'll stay about even."

The next legislature will be discussing a plan to revamp how schools are funded. Some hope this discussion will help alleviate this inappropriate funding system. In the meantime, our children get a substandard education.

Education is essential to our future workforce. Without it, we become another backwater state begging for companies that require cheap, inexperienced labor. The starting point to being a first-tier economic state is our education system, and in 19 school districts across the state, the prospect of having a good job just got a little more dim.

It doesn't have to be like this.

The Minnesota School Boards Association has a list of all of Tuesday's results. Here's the link.

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