Voters to weigh school funding requests in seven south-metro districts

  • Article by: SARAH LEMAGIE , Star Tribune staff writer
  • Updated: November 1, 2011 - 3:03 PM

Two districts, Northfield and West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan, propose to increase operating levies as much as state law permits.

An all-or-nothing request for school funding in the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan district is among the more dramatic taxing proposals that south-metro voters will judge on Tuesday.

Statewide, 114 school districts are seeking to extend or increase operating levies this fall, including seven in Scott and Dakota counties.

Many south-metro school leaders are taking early action. With much at stake and a busy presidential election threatening their chances of getting taxes approved next year, districts such as Burnsville-Eagan-Savage and Northfield are asking now to renew or increase taxing authority that won't expire for more than a year.

But other districts, such as West St. Paul and Hastings, are on the brink of losing millions for schools if voters don't renew expiring levies this year.

The West St. Paul school board is making a bold move: It's asking not only to renew taxes, as Hastings is, but also to increase its operating levy authority to the maximum allowed by state law. And while many districts split their proposals into multiple ballot questions to give voters a choice between maintaining or increasing taxes, the board has rolled its proposal into a single question.

West St. Paul board chairwoman Robin Rainford defended that approach. Merely renewing the levy, which was approved in 2002, wouldn't raise enough money for the district to maintain current services, she said.

"We discussed it at some length, the pros and cons, and essentially said that we would ask for what was needed to preserve the quality of education here in the district," Rainford said.

If voters reject the request, district leaders say they'll face a budget shortfall of $3.2 million for 2012-13. Among the possible cuts: Closing a school, cutting a dozen or more jobs and changing the daily schedule at Henry Sibley High School.

Even if the tax increase is approved, school leaders say the district is likely to adopt some cost-saving measures, depending on the advice of a group of residents and employees meeting this fall.

West St. Paul would join a small handful of Minnesota districts that have voter authority to levy at the maximum level allowed by the state. School leaders trying to join that club argue that years of inadequate state and federal funding and the state's continuing budget woes have left them no choice.

This fall, the Northfield district also will ask voters to consider increasing its operating levy authority to the state cap.

"We need to try to maintain our programs and the staff that our community expects, and that we believe our children deserve, for as long as we can," said Northfield Superintendent Chris Richardson.

But Northfield and other districts seeking local tax increases have drawn fire from Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, who chairs the House education finance committee.

"Contrary to the doom and gloom being preached by the teacher's union, local Democrats and those who want to raise taxes -- the Northfield School District is anything but underfunded," Garofalo wrote recently in a Northfield News opinion column. State lawmakers increased education funding by more than $650 million this year, he wrote.

But Garofalo's numbers are "cooked up in a different way than has ever been calculated," argued Rep. Mindy Greiling, the DFL lead on the education finance committee. Tallied by the usual methods, the increase was about $195 million, she said.

Northfield school leaders said the district will get about $50 per pupil in new, unrestricted state funding this year and $100 per pupil next year. Almost all of that will be consumed by the cost of covering underfunded mandates such as special education services and potential interest costs resulting from delays in state aid payments, they said.

Northfield's existing levy doesn't expire until 2014, giving the district two more general elections to extend it if voters reject this fall's proposal. Others such as New Prague have one year to spare.

But many school leaders hope to avoid going to voters in 2012. School ballot questions have a lower passage rate in presidential election years, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association.

"That's going to be a really loud election with a lot of stuff going on," said Ruth Dunn, a spokeswoman for the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district. "We just don't think our proposal [would] get the attention it deserves."

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