Metro area voters are being asked again this fall to show how far they’ll go to lift or steady the fortunes of their financially strapped school districts.
Leaders in several suburban communities are returning with new twists on high-stakes funding pitches that they hope can reverse previous defeats at the polls.
Minneapolis and St. Paul officials aim to halt an annual run of springtime budget cuts by pushing levy plans that could leave the typical homeowner facing property-tax increases topping 10 percent.
Districts sound a familiar refrain: The state’s basic per-pupil funding formula hasn’t kept pace with inflation.
But officials are aware, too, of the burden they are placing on their taxpayers, especially those on fixed incomes. So, the St. Paul and Minneapolis campaigns, plus others, come with reminders that hard-hit homeowners do have property-tax refund programs available to help ease the pain.
Minneapolis school board Member Kim Ellison acknowledged the tension of relying on residents to serve district needs.
“I want to help, but it’s hard,” she said.
Recently, elected officials in St. Paul and Ramsey County got a look at the potential combined tax impact of levy proposals being considered by the city, county and school district — with and without voter approval of the St. Paul School District’s proposal to raise $18.6 million a year in new operating funds.
If voters back that plan, taxes on the city’s $186,200 median-valued home could rise by $323, or 12.8 percent, to $2,839. If they defeat it, the increase on the home would be no more than $188, or 7.5 percent.
Ramsey County is required by state law to issue its tax forecast every September. Hennepin County is not. So, the Star Tribune asked Hennepin County tax officials to calculate the potential tax bills for Minneapolis homeowners based on the district’s hopes of raising $30 million a year in new voter-approved funding.
If Minneapolis voters back the school levy plans, taxes on the city’s $249,500 median-valued home could rise by $359, or 10.2 percent, to $3,523. That includes the city and county tax proposals, and property value changes, too. If defeated, the increase on the home would be no more than $220, or 6.5 percent.
In St. Paul, Mayor Melvin Carter has proposed an 11.5 percent increase in the city’s tax levy to help fund his 2019 budget. Add to that the district’s proposal, and the potential tax bite will drive people out of the city, a homeowner told schools Superintendent Joe Gothard at an Oct. 11 levy information session.
Gothard replied that the city and school district work together, but are independent of one another, too.
“I can’t call the city and ask them to change their mind based on me,” he said.
Mayors and City Council members in both Minneapolis and St. Paul have lent support to their respective district’s levy plans. The Minneapolis Regional Chamber has, too. But the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce has yet to enter its city’s “Vote Yes” camp.
Strong cities, strong schools
The Minneapolis district is seeking $18 million a year in new operating money from voters in November. The district, for the first time, also is asking voters to back a $12 million a year technology levy to help offset costs currently covered by the general fund.
At his recent State of the Schools address, Minneapolis Superintendent Ed Graff declared that the additional money will help the district boost student achievement by investing in his key priorities — literacy, equity, social and emotional learning, and student support services such as counselors and education support professionals. If approved, district officials said, the funding also would prevent future staff and program cuts.
St. Paul, too, wants to stem budget cuts, and also invest in a new strategic plan.
At a recent campaign event, Leili Fatehi, of Minneapolis, said she will vote yes because of an acute staffing shortage and the stubborn achievement gap.
“The district is being forced to rely on parents,” she said. “Until our federal government and state government step up, it’s an indispensable need that we have to provide for at the local level.”
Tom Hoch, a former mayoral candidate who is co-chair of the Minneapolis Vote Yes campaign, said it is much cheaper for voters to pitch in now than later.
“We’re asking people for a lot of money,” he said. “You can’t have a strong city if you don’t have a strong school system.”
The business community, as represented by the Minneapolis Regional Chamber, also recommends a yes vote. Jonathan Weinhagen, the chamber’s president and CEO, said there’s a direct connection between the city’s future workforce and its schools.
In 2012, the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce endorsed the district’s pursuit of $9 million a year in technology funding. But when asked by the district this year to back its new $18.6 million a year funding proposal, the chamber’s board could not come to a consensus.
“Discussions are ongoing,” said Shannon Watson, the chamber’s public affairs director.
Turning yes to no
Suburban districts going back to voters after recent ballot-question rejections include Forest Lake, Rockford, Columbia Heights and Centennial. Rockford and Centennial want both facilities improvements and additional operating funds.
The Mahtomedi school district is taking a tiered approach to its 10-year levy “ask,” seeking voter approval of tax increases in 2019, 2022 and 2025 — rather than all at once. That’s because the high-performing district lacks the business tax base that many other districts have, leaving homeowners with a greater share of the tax burden, Superintendent Barb Duffrin said.
In 2013, voters in cities such as Grant, Hugo and Dellwood helped defeat a Mahtomedi ballot request. Last week, City of Grant Mayor Jeff Huber declined to say where he stands on the Mahtomedi proposal.
“I have strong opinions on the future of my city, and certainly strong schools are an important part of that equation, but the decision to support or deny this levy is one made individually by the residents of this district,” he said.