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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Voting for School Investment

November 08, 2013 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Minnesotans sent a clear public policy signal in Tuesday’s elections. Schools are important and we’ll vote to put our pocketbooks behind our rhetoric. 77 of Minnesota’s 333 school districts placed referenda before voters. 67 districts passed measures; 10 did not. That’s a much higher than usual pass rate. It refutes disastrous conservative public education policy.

Off-year elections are increasingly less common. Largely due to cost considerations, local office elections are grouped around the legislative cycle. We used to elect presidents, federal and state legislators, and state constitutional officer in even-numbered years and mayors, city councilmembers, school board members and county commissioners in the odd-numbered years. Today, only a handful of electoral jurisdictions hang on to the tradition. School districts tend to be among those engaging voters away from the legislative cycle.

The neat and orderly part of my brain likes electoral consolidation. Spreading election costs over multiple jurisdictions lowers everyone’s expense. That appeals to my Belgian/Scottish/Danish/Welsh/German rural immigrant farmer frugality in the same way as making a week’s worth of lunch sandwiches on Sunday night and then freezing them for later parceling and consumption. Conceptually, it’s a great idea. In practice, it leaves a lot to be desired.

Minnesotans, like most Americans, ask much of government. Public safety. Public health. Roads. Libraries. Schools. Healthcare. Consumer protections. Yet, concentrated power gives us considerable pause so we’ve delineated responsibility. We like layers of government delivering services because it keeps any single layer from becoming too influential and creates broad voter accountability.

Every four years, we cast a single ballot that encompasses broad policy and leadership evaluation in a single thumbs up or thumbs down moment. We choose a president. Every election down the ballot, in that year and the following three, digs deeper into specific, thornier issues, asking citizens to make choices based on increasingly nuanced local circumstances. It’s a right created by our representative democracy but, more critically, it’s an awesome responsibility.

The passionate, opinionated part of my brain likes voting annually because my perceptions and perspectives change, altering my judgment. What seemed like a good vote two or three years ago now proves itself to have overestimated both circumstance and the elected leader. I love, for example, a Jucy Blucy from the Blue Door Pub in Saint Paul however frequent consumption carries substantial long-term health consequences that are easily dismissed when jonesing for an excuse to wolf down a burger. What I want and what I get represent a very personal version of the larger public policy tug.

Reducing tax obligations require, in turn, smaller budgets for necessary and desired services. Smaller budgets for law enforcement, road repair or educational instruction, for example, negatively impact outcomes. Over time, crime rates rise, roads crumble and schools produce workers incapable of meeting workforce demands. Living costs rise and wages shrink as skilled work moves elsewhere, creating a downward spiral that undermines family and community stability. Serving short-term needs without regard to long-term considerations yields greater problems.

Most Minnesota school districts passed their operating and capital levies. That’s a big vote for Minnesota’s future expressed in highly localized terms. Capital levies are property taxes used to pay for school district capital investments like replacing a gym or rehabbing a building. It’s a long-term investment in school infrastructure. Operating levies are property taxes that directly pay for extra money to spend on schooling. These funds supplement state K12 allocations that provide the bulk of educational budgets. More than anything, operating referenda represent immediate community feedback on school performance, economic confidence and demographic change.

Eyeballing the school referenda results, most measures passed by strong margins. Defeats were much more closely contested than victories. Two defeats strongly suggest local complications. Dassel-Cokato voters crushed a proposed operating levy, 20-80. Worthington school district voters defeated an operating levy, 46-54, but overwhelmingly rejected a capital levy, 35-65. It’s interesting to contemplate outliers just don’t miss the larger pattern. Minnesotans, at the local level, voted to increase school investments.

Tuesday night’s electoral results set an important tone. In three months, the state legislative session opens. State policymakers face a ten-plus year backlog of challenges created by conservative public policy initiatives. When the people vote their pocketbooks for schools, policymakers should feel emboldened and follow suit. Minnesota outcomes merit Minnesota investment.

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