St. Paul will roll dice with school tax issue

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 17, 2012 - 11:19 PM

Instead of two levy questions, the board opts to combine them.

It will be all or nothing for St. Paul schools this fall when the district will ask voters to renew an expiring levy used to fund several programs and services, as well as pony up additional money to help improve technology.

The school board voted 6-1 Tuesday to put a single question on the Nov. 6 ballot asking voters for a total of $39 million per year over the next eight years, rather than giving them the option to vote on each request separately.

If voters approve the increase, owners of a $149,000 house, the median value of a home in the state's second-largest school district, would see property taxes rise $66 per year.

"I believe people have said to us 'Tell us what you need,'" board vice chairwoman Elona Street-Stewart said in voting to choose the single question. "I think our responsibly will be in identifying how the dollars will be used and the impact they will have on St. Paul students."

Most of the 15 people who spoke during a public comment period voiced little objection to renewing the expiring levy. But they emphatically implored the board to be cognizant of taxpayers and not ask for more money at a time when 9,000 St. Paul residents are out of work and the economy is still sputtering.

"I love St. Paul, but housing prices are going down and taxes are going up," said Carlos Conway, 28. "These scenarios are making me poor. The purpose of technology is to increase the quality of education and lower costs, and we are not seeing that. I will not be supporting the levy. "

If voters say no, the district will lose the $30 million a year it currently collects through the levy that was passed in 2005 and that expires in 2013. And it would not get the additional $9 million a year it seeks to integrate technology into classrooms and personalize student learning.

But Greg Abbott of the Minnesota School Boards Association said that by putting only a single question on the ballot, the district may improve its chances of getting both measures passed.

"Single questions have a better chance of passing than two questions," he said. "When they [districts] go for two questions, you will see that the first one passes because there is no tax impact from that. But the second one usually gets voted down. Last year, lots of seconds got voted down. If you need that increase, putting that into two questions is not the best thing to do."

In 2011, when a near-record 114 districts went to the voters for help, 56 of the 57 districts in Minnesota that sought renewal of a levy without asking for more money got what they wanted. Of the 26 districts that posed two or more questions for renewal or additional operating money, more than half had at least one question fail.

A bigger factor may be that 2012 is a presidential election year and likely will draw higher number of voters than an off-year election. Whether posing one question or more, Abbott said, passing a levy during a presidential election year rests largely on getting the message out early, telling voters what the money is for and what will happen if the levy request is declined.

"Your worst enemy in a presidential election is that nobody will hear you because they are so focused on Obama and Romney," Abbott said. "The media is focused on Obama and Romney, and you hardly hear anything about the school referendum."

Districts have until Aug. 24 to declare their intentions about putting levy requests on the November ballot. Abbott estimated that about 50 districts will place measures on the ballot statewide this year.

The board also is banking on results of a survey conducted in the spring that showed 77 percent of district voters favored renewing the 2005 levy. That number climbed to nearly 82 percent when respondents were told that big cuts in math and science programs, teacher layoffs, larger class sizes and reductions in preschool and all-day kindergarten programs would occur if the levy was not renewed.

Although the survey showed a majority of respondents gave the district a favorable grade of B or better in the areas of educating children for future success, planning for needs of the community, managing finances and meeting academic needs of the city, it also showed just 57 percent of the 605 respondents would support a tax increase.

Tim Harlow • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @timstrib

  • $39 million

    total value of the levy that could be on the ballot this fall for St. Paul schools

    $66

    increase in property taxes per year for owner of a $149,000 house (median value in the district) if the levy passes

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