Few Minn. schools will ask for voter help this year

  • Article by: KIM MCGUIRE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 27, 2012 - 1:43 PM

Only about 30 in state will seek tax levy referendums.

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The lunchroom shared by Delano middle and high school students.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Last November, a record number of Minnesota schools turned to taxpayers for financial help.

This year? Not so much.

Friday was the last day schools had to decide whether to hold tax levy referendums. According to the Minnesota School Boards Association, about 30 schools initially indicated they planned to do just that.

Compare that number with a whopping 133 from the year before and it's clear this November is shaping up to be rather uneventful for Minnesota schools.

"Given that there was such a high number last year, it's logical we would see a significant decrease this year," said Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. "I think you're mostly seeing schools that weren't successful in meeting their needs last year come out again."

Also dissuading schools from soliciting voter help is the upcoming presidential election. Many school officials say they don't want to risk losing voters to the noise coming from the campaign. They'll wait until next year.

Others are waiting for a clearer picture from the state on the future of education funding.

A recently reconvened statewide task force is sorting through a number of education finance reform proposals aimed at improving the adequacy and stability of funding for Minnesota schools, which are increasingly relying on voters to close budget shortfalls.

Still, a handful of schools are seeking more property tax dollars this November to help pay for things like technology, teachers and early education.

In some cases, operating levies approved by voters years ago are expiring, drying up significant streams of funding. When you combine those potential local losses with lagging funding from the state, many schools are contemplating staffing and program cutbacks.

A look at Delano and St. Paul

In Delano, for example, an operating levy that provides about $1.1 million annually -- or almost 7 percent of the district's budget -- is set to expire next year.

If the levy isn't renewed, district officials project they will have to cut about $700,000 from their budget, which translates into about 18 lost jobs, bigger class sizes and a reduction in services. Last year, Delano voters rejected a levy renewal, which prompted the district to cut staff and raise fees.

"It will cripple us," said Superintendent Matt Schoen of the possibility of another rejection by voters. "We're at a critical financial crossroads."

In St. Paul, the school district will ask voters for a total of $39 million per year over the next eight years. Most of that amount, $30 million, is already generated by an operating levy set to expire next school year.

If the district can persuade voters to grant them that amount, they'll continue to invest in things like early education, hire more elementary math and reading teachers and reduce class sizes.

Without it, St. Paul schools will most likely have to scale back popular programs such as all-day kindergarten, said Superintendent Valeria Silva.

"When you consider the cost of day care, we're just asking for about $65 a year," Silva said of the estimated yearly impact on property taxes if the referendum is approved.

About $9 million of the total amount the district will be asking voters to front will be used for new technology initiatives. Currently, the district is dedicating about 1 percent of its budget for technology, not much compared with other districts, Silva said.

With more money, the district will use technology to better connect teachers to learning resources such as online textbooks and reference materials and give administrators increased data to make better decisions.

Most important, Silva said, students will be able to better use technology to create personalized learning experiences.

"We know our kids are totally different than us -- they are native to technology. It's their life," she said. "But often we put them in situations in the classroom where technology is very limited."

Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469

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