As schools are gearing up for a new year with students, some are also starting efforts to raise more school funding from taxpayers.
In some cases, those requests confirm the need to release school districts from having to return to voters for excess levy renewals. Other local, tax-supported entities don’t have to go back to the polls to keep a portion of their funding. School districts shouldn’t have to, either.
The recent annual Minnesota School Boards Association (MSBA) survey shows a record high 68 districts have asked or will ask voters to grant building bond or capital project levy requests during this calendar year. District leaders say the number of requests is up in part because schools need more space to accommodate children in all-day kindergarten.
While schools will receive the additional per-pupil state funding for kindergarten expansion, they did not get additional dollars for classrooms and other space, transportation and other costs associated with expanding staff and student services. In addition to the capital requests, another 53 of the districts that responded to the MSBA survey will seek approval for referendums to help support their general operating budgets.
Nine of the 40 metro-area districts surveyed by the Association of Metropolitan School Districts said they will have referendums this fall: Eastern Carver County, Fridley, Lakeville, Minnetonka, North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale, Richfield, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, South Washington County and St. Cloud.
About half of the operating requests statewide are renewals of existing levies, meaning that if they are approved, districts will not receive any additional funding.
During the past two legislative sessions, lawmakers recognized the referendum problems and provided some relief. The state now allows school boards to independently approve up to $724 per student in excess levies. That brought welcome help and budget increases to smaller, outstate districts that had no levy funding at all. But those districts with higher levies — between $900 and $1,800 per student — still must finance the difference through renewal votes.
It’s unfair to schools to force them to return to voters simply to maintain budgets. It sets up schools to bear the brunt of any and all taxpayer discontent. A homeowner or business owner, for example, may be unhappy with higher county or city taxes, but may feel the only way to object is by voting no in a school referendum.
Voters with school questions on their ballots this fall should keep that in mind as they consider their votes. They should also carefully study requests for new levies and ask tough questions about budgets to hold school leaders accountable. Meanwhile, state lawmakers should consider additional levy renewal relief.