Minneapolis School Board Member Rebecca Gagnon quizzed nearly 300 people at recent block parties about the $74 million school referendum renewal headed to the ballot in November. Just one person had heard about it.
That response was not surprising, she said.
“I haven’t seen a campaign until recently,” said Gagnon, who noted it’s partly the school board’s responsibility to help lead referendum awareness.
The quiet campaign for the school referendum comes at an awkward time for the district, after a tumultuous year of school board criticism and two long superintendent searches, and before new Superintendent Ed Graff can prove himself to voters.
“Up to now it has been quiet and the best-kept secret on the ballot, but we’re hoping in this last month to six weeks that people will be excited about being able to re-up the referendum and will know that it’s happening,” said campaign volunteer and former Minneapolis Federation of Teachers president Louise Sundin.
School districts across the state face a difficult task: spreading the word about their measures while voters are being pounded with information about the presidential campaign, said Greg Abbott of the Minnesota School Boards Association. Of the nearly 30 Minnesota districts with property tax questions on the Election Day ballot, about 10 are seeking renewals and not increases, he said.
The Minneapolis referendum question asks voters to renew an existing property tax levy that gives the school district help to manage class sizes and increase student support services, such as counselors and education support professionals.
Those backing the campaign say the low-key nature isn’t a tactic to avoid attention after a tough year. Campaign efforts are strapped by a tight budget, said Donald McFarland, the Vote Yes for Minneapolis Kids campaign spokesman. District officials and campaign representatives say efforts will ramp up in the coming weeks after its presence at Open Streets festivals, and its list of endorsements includes Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison.
Ann Berget, who was a Minneapolis school board member from 1992 to 2000, said she has a different theory.
“They stand to lose a lot if this referendum fails, but if this is an open campaign, really out there in the public eye, then they’re going to have to defend their performance, their financial performance and their leadership performance,” said Berget, who said she’s not supporting the referendum. “And in my opinion, they can’t do it.”
If the referendum fails, the district would cut 500 employees, said Gagnon, who’s also the board treasurer.
The Committee for Better Schools, which funds the Vote Yes for Minneapolis Kids campaign, raked in about $30,000 in campaign contributions, according to an Aug. 1 filing. Fundraising has ramped up since then, McFarland said, but he declined to provide the campaign’s budget.
“The business community became very invested eight years ago, and we just haven’t seen that level of support from the business community in Minneapolis for this referendum,” he said.
The hopeful tone of President Obama’s first campaign in 2008 rubbed off on the last referendum, which was a tax increase, said Board Member Carla Bates. This time, polls showed it was too risky for the district to ask for more money.
“The mood is somber,” Bates said. “The decision to continue with this level is a recognition both of the fact that the district knows that we can do better with the resources that we currently have, and yet we also know that our kids need the money to continue.”
Class sizes were a priority in the 2008 referendum, and district data comparing kindergarten through fifth-grade class sizes from 2009 to 2015 show that sizes dropped or stayed the same.
“Because this is a continuing referendum and we’re not asking for an increase, we’re just looking to continue to be able to maintain class sizes at a manageable level for as many kids as possible,” said school Board Member Josh Reimnitz.
Property taxes won’t increase as a result of the referendum, Sundin said. A document on the district’s website reported that taxes for the median single-family home would fall in 2017, if the referendum passes. The referendum dollar amount for upcoming school years could fluctuate with student enrollment and property values, McFarland said.
So far, the public reaction to the referendum has been positive, and the district has a history of supporting school tax questions, McFarland said.
Lawn signs arrive this week, McFarland said, and he said he hopes the city will be plastered with them by the end of October.
“If we weren’t planning on working around the clock for the next six weeks, I would not be as confident as I am,” he said.