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Continued: At polls, the biggest battles will be over school funding

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Last update: October 29, 2011 - 8:43 PM

At a breakfast table in Mendota Heights, six parents chew on voter identification data and bagels -- forging strategies of lawn signs, lemonade stands, absentee ballots for college kids and information sessions in Spanish. "Anything to rustle up votes," volunteer Stephanie Levine said.

As the sun sets nine hours later, 15 other parents file into an empty office building in Delano to begin calling everyone in town while the superintendent, in his after-hours sweatshirt, stands by to answer any questions.

Election Day is nine days away and, instead of a heated governor's race, hot-button marriage amendment or presidential names, Minnesota voters will be confronted with a wave of school districts pleading for cash. All told, 125 districts, from massive Anoka-Hennepin to tiny Sleepy Eye, will barrage voters with 171 different requests, asking them to forget the sour economy and check "yes" -- even though it might mean a $20 monthly bump on their property tax bills.

It's the most school referendum questions on state ballots in a decade, and the battle for badly needed votes is being waged one phone call, door knock and Facebook page at a time.

"Hi, my name is Alli, I have three kids going to Delano schools and I'm reaching out to find out if you've had a chance to learn about our operating levy," said Alli Zens, adding between calls, "It doesn't get any more grass roots than this."

About half the Nov. 8 referendums will ask voters to renew existing operating levies, while other districts will beg for more money to avoid hundreds of teacher layoffs, swollen class sizes and further slashes to after-school activities.

"In the 1990s, the Legislature wanted to change the formula and make education less dependent on local property taxes, but that didn't happen and now we're more reliant on local levies than ever," said Mary Cecconi, who leads Parents United for Public Schools, a state group hoping to overhaul how schools are funded.

While referendum opponents are less organized, some Republican state lawmakers insist districts are trying to fleece taxpayers. They remind voters that the state-shutdown special session shoveled millions more to schools the next two years.

"Some of these districts are getting colossal increases in funding and are still going out for levies," said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, chairman of the House Education Finance Committee and estimates schools got a $650 million increase in this two-year funding cycle. "If that's not enough, how much is enough?"

Superintendents, teachers and parents are thankful for a $50 per student increase the next two years, but they insist it doesn't go far enough because the state has been shorting schools for years.

Cecconi points out the $50 bump will be instantly swallowed by increased special education costs. Meanwhile districts are busy borrowing money, albeit at low rates, after the state solved its shutdown with a shift that gives schools 60 percent of funding upfront but delays the rest until the next fiscal year.

With more than one of every three state general fund dollars going toward schools, the health of Minnesota's education system depends on whose numbers you believe. Here are some to consider:

• Minnesota has sunk from fifth to 22nd in student spending since 1970, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

• When adjusted for inflation, per-pupil spending of $5,805 this school year is down 2.5 percent from last year, according to state Education Department data, which projects a 1.5 percent increase next year.

• The state spent 7.8 percent less per student than three years ago, according to the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities research group.

'An acrimonious feeling'

In many communities, such as Janesville, 75 miles south of the Twin Cities, the school funding question will be the only thing on the ballot and only one voting place will be open. Superintendent Dick Orcutt is fully aware of one key statistic in the dizzying fall flood of school funding numbers, charts and graphs:

In odd years like this, school referendums have been approved 71 percent of the time the past 20 years, while they pass only 52 percent of the time in even-year, higher-profile, higher-turnout elections, according to a state Education Department analysis.

That's because parents with skin in the game and kids in schools can mobilize supporters to vote. A majority of those who turn out is all that's needed to pass a referendum.

Still, it's been a tough sell with such a stagnant economy. Earlier referendums this year in Carlton, Pelican Rapids, Two Harbors and Brooklyn Center all have been defeated.

Last year, the Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton School District lost a ballot question by a 50 votes, 1,102 to 1,052.

"We thought we had enough ears bent," Orcutt said. "But there was so much acrimony at the state and federal level last year, it was tough to pass."

Orcutt walked into a Waldorf school, shuttered last year, to meet with voters and justify the district's $913-per-pupil levy request. He told the crowd that the $50 increase will mean $31,000 for their district, but shifting funding to the next fiscal year will cost it more than a half-million dollars.

"An acrimonious feeling emanated until I started telling them the story of the shell game going on and they calmed down," he said. "They can't hang you for telling the truth."

If the referendum fails again, he warned, "we have two years to survive at best" before the district consolidates with a neighboring district or dissolves -- meaning more school closings, layoffs and longer bus rides.

In Mendota Heights, parent Anne De Torre of Eagan shakes her head after the latest strategy session.

"This seems like such an incredible waste of time when we could be volunteering in classrooms, helping kids read," she said. "But now we have to do all this crunching of yes and no votes and phone calling."

In Delano, furniture salesman Brad Bruhn is so worried about growing class sizes, he wrote a jingle to drum up support.

"Vote 'Yes' for our bright future, help us be all we can be," sing his twin sixth-grade daughters, Kate and Claire, and two of their friends in a video. "Vote 'Yes' for a better Delano, for higher scores in reading, math and ACT."

'Seems it's never enough'

All the passion, energy, videos and cute jingles whipped up by "Vote Yes" activists are countered by letter writers in Waconia, outspoken state legislators and a group billing itself as Students First in Willmar, where the west-central Minnesota district is seeking a levy of nearly $500 per pupil.

"If we didn't oppose this, we would be saying to the district: 'You're doing well, so carry on' and we couldn't do that in good conscience when we need to reform our schools," said Linda Kacher, the spokeswoman of a group she says includes about 20 Willmar residents.

Willmar school officials say they'll need to cut $3 million from their budget if the levy fails, but Kacher says "this isn't the catastrophe our superintendent makes it out to be."

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said districts will see increases of 5 percent to 14 percent, yet "some schools say, 'Well, thank you for the increase and by the way we're going forward with a referendum increase as well' -- it just seems it's never enough."

Especially given such dire economic times, argues Scott Jensen, a former Waconia school board member who wrote to his town newspaper, lobbying against the district's levy request for a new elementary school.

"Many friends and neighbors in our own district are unemployed, financially strapped or seniors on fixed incomes unable to keep pace with rising taxes," Jensen said. "I just think the district has to recalibrate expectations and not behave like these are usual times when we're in a deep recession that could get worse."

Staff writer Kelly Smith contributed to this report. Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

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