Together, Minneapolis and St. Paul Public Schools are responsible for educating more than 73,000 students — a significant portion of the region’s future workforce. To maintain and improve the quality of instruction for those young minds, both cities’ school leaders are asking taxpayers to pay more for education.
Twin Cities voters should approve the school bond and operating levy requests in the two core cities. The urban districts share significant challenges — including higher numbers of low-income, English-learning and special-needs students whose education legitimately requires more resources. For example, school leaders told the Star Tribune Editorial Board that about a dozen of their students were living in the south Minneapolis homeless tent encampment, where three people have died in recent weeks.
Like many Minnesota districts, the state’s core cities have incorporated excess-levy revenue into their standard operating budgets. Though the original intent of such levies was to get voter approval for capital improvements and “extras,” many districts now depend on them for a growing portion of basic spending. That contributes to per-pupil spending inequities between districts, based on property tax capacity.
And in our view, it continues to be unfair for schools to be the only taxpayer-supported entity that must ask voters — repeatedly — for funding. That’s not required of either city or county boards that also help set property tax rates. And even though state funding has increased over the years, it has not kept up with inflation. Nor have the state or federal governments come close to covering mandated services for special-education students, contributing to district financial shortfalls.
The MPS Strong campaign seeks a two-part, $30 million referendum. The first question asks voters to increase the existing operating levy to the state-allowed maximum, to raise $18 million. That authority would increase each year by the rate of inflation and be applicable for seven years. The second question would authorize a capital-projects levy to raise $12 million for technology and data systems. That would allow MPS to free up that amount in the general fund for other uses. The annual property tax impact of the two questions would be $224 annually on a residential homestead property worth $400,000. For a commercial property worth $1 million, the increase would be $634 per year.
This 2018 referendum follows a successful 2016 referendum in which voters renewed, but were not asked to increase, an existing levy. It is supported by a range of community, union, political and business leaders.
St. Paul (SPPS)
While many districts rely more heavily on referendum funds, St. Paul school leaders have been more conservative, in part because referendum requests failed in the 1990s. The district receives one of the lowest voter-approved per-pupil levy amounts ($705) in the metro area; Minneapolis and Anoka-Hennepin get $1,637 and $1,270, respectively.
The St. Paul school board is asking voters to pony up an additional $18.6 million annually by increasing its annual operating levy. The tax impact on a $175,000 home would be an additional $136 per year; a $400,000 property would see taxes go up by $311 annually.
St. Paul voters last approved a levy increase in 2012. The request this year would replace the current one and run for 10 years, including annual inflationary increases. And voters should note that there are several state tax refund and deferment programs available to help ease the impact of tax hikes.
SPPS Superintendent Joe Gothard said the money will go toward increasing mental health support for kids and limit additional cuts, among other things. SPPS cut more than $50 million in the past three years and approved cuts of $17.2 million for the 2018-19 school year.
St. Paul and Minneapolis are certainly not alone in requesting additional funds from voters during the election cycle. According to the Minnesota School Boards Association, 25 school districts are asking for bond referendums and 35 districts are seeking operating levies.
Though some argue the districts could use current resources more efficiently to boost achievement, the challenges to improve learning have become greater. Simply keeping up with rising costs of staff salaries and benefits and supporting services such as transportation, building maintenance and technology costs more every year. As a result, reasonable requests for additional investment merit approval.