School districts fare well in levy renewals

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 9, 2011 - 6:28 AM

But when it came to approving "new" money, voters in many districts turned thumbs down.

Across the metro, voters gave an emphatic yes to school districts asking them to extend current levels of funding, but tended to balk at kicking in more.

The Anoka-Hennepin School District, the state's largest, offered a prime example. The district asked voters to renew a $48 million-a-year levy for 10 years, warning of dire consequences if it failed, and the request passed comfortably. A second proposal -- for $30 million over 10 years for technology funding -- appeared to pass by the narrowest of margins, while a third, for additional per-pupil money, was rejected.

In all, more than 120 districts across Minnesota held referendums Tuesday. Some sought money to update technology or build new facilities, but about half asked voters to renew existing operating levies, money that pays for teachers and covers other classroom expenses.

In addition to Anoka-Hennepin, operating levy renewals also passed in Buffalo, Edina, Forest Lake, Inver Grove Heights, Orono, Princeton and Spring Lake Park, among others.

The Delano Public Schools, which sought to more than double a levy that will expire in the spring of 2013, fell short. The district may go back to voters next year, but it must also plan for about $800,000 in possible cuts, said Superintendent John Sweet.

Stillwater sought to increase its annual operating levy, and also proposed a technology levy and a land acquisition bond. All three requests were voted down.

In a statement, Stillwater School Superintendent Corey Lunn said: "I have no doubt our community values education. I recognize that for many voters the decision simply came down to economics. Voters provided us with a clear message -- as a school district we must find ways to do more with less, become more efficient and change the way we do business."

He added that the district's needs will not go away, and that he will seek help from the community to make cuts as needed.

The success of the renewal requests suggest that voters understand the importance of funding their schools, said Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

"I think people understand that we're in a very challenging financial time," he said "People understand that the state of Minnesota has wrestled with deficits for the last four to six to eight years and the dollars that have been made available to early childhood through 12 education have not kept pace with inflation. ...

"What they're running into conflict with is that fact, along with their own family situations, that creates a challenge for individuals and communities. As I've talked with administrators throughout the state, and as I've talked with various community members, it's not a matter of communities not having a strong allegiance and support for their public schools. It's at this time they can't provide additional dollars."

Bucking the trend, West St. Paul was successful in its request to more than double its $1.7 million annual levy, adding another $1.8 million a year. The district had said that failure to do so would have meant a budget shortfall of $3.2 million for 2012-13 and possible cuts such as closing a school, cutting a dozen or more jobs and changing the daily schedule at Henry Sibley High School.

"We're very grateful to the community for their support," said Susan Brott, the district's chief marketing and communications officer. "We also recognize that this is only a short-term thing, so we continue to look for efficiencies where we can in redesigning education so we can make it more sustainable."

Anoka-Hennepin was among several districts whose operating levies do not expire until 2013 but that sought approval a year in advance, to allow for adequate planning for major cuts, if necessary, and also another go at voter approval should this attempt fail.

Burnsville-Eagan-Savage and North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale also took this path. Both were successful.

According to the Minnesota Department of Education, recent levy referendums have shown to be much more successful in odd years -- no national or statewide elections -- than they have been in even years.

Staff reporter Emma Carew Grovum contributed to this report. Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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