Julie Sabo sat at the dining room table of her south Minneapolis home Wednesday night with a phone, laptop, notepad and a glass of water in case her throat got dry.

Her computer displayed city residents' names, ages and phone numbers and a script telling people why they should support renewal of the Minneapolis Schools' excess levy.

Several people didn't answer, but the script included a short message that she left for residents who didn't pick up.

"I've been doing phone banks since I was a kid," said Sabo, the daughter of the longtime Minneapolis congressman Martin Sabo, who is now retired. "I'm used to the paper [records] but this is so neat."

Sabo is one of several dozen volunteers trained by the Strong Schools, Strong City campaign to use their home phones and computers to access voter registration data software to build support for the Nov. 4 referendum, which seeks $60 million a year for eight years.

"What's great about virtual phone banks is that they put political power in the hands of individuals," said Paul Rohlfing, manager of the pro-referendum group.

Rohlfing said the system is similar to one supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama used to contact undecided voters in Iowa earlier this year. But the group believes this is the first time the software has been used in a Minnesota school district referendum.

Minneapolis Schools' supporters consider the money to be essential as the district works to implement a strategic plan aimed at boosting overall achievement and disproportionately low test scores at many of the city's high-poverty North Side schools.

District officials say the money will also help keep class sizes down, improve the math and science curriculum, fund early grade literacy initiatives and buy new textbooks and technology. Minneapolis taxpayers approved an excess levy in 1990, and renewed it in 1996 and 2000.

The average Minneapolis home is valued at $256,000 and currently pays about $15 a month for the excess levy approved in 2000. The new levy would raise that to about $32 a month, an increase of about $17 a month over the current tax. So far there's no organized opposition to Minneapolis Schools' request.

Yet it could be hard sell for the more than 80 percent of city residents who don't have children in the schools. Opponents also have publicly questioned giving a school system with poor state test scores additional money.

The phone calls Sabo made earlier this week at her home are the latest phase of a parent-led campaign that began this summer with house parties that included local politicians and school board members.

But there weren't any celebrities at Sabo's house. Just her, her husband Peter Baatrup, and their two sons, Oskar, 5 and Jakob, 7.

Sabo taught at Minneapolis' now-closed North Star Elementary School for several years but realizes tough economic times may leave many voters on the fence into October and November.

Those concerns, among others, motivated her to attend a training session and set aside 45 minutes to make calls this week, despite her family's hectic schedule. She was on the phone while her husband played in the back yard with Oskar and Jakob.

"When you have kids, you live within these little segments of time," Sabo said. "This gives people the flexibility they need these days."

Among the half-dozen people who did pick up when she called was a man who asked to be called back (Sabo heard young children in the background), an older woman who asked for the group's website and to be put on their mailing list, and another woman who said she'd heard about the early literacy issue and agreed to put a "Vote Yes" sign in her yard.

"The group we're really wanting [to talk to] are people without direct involvement in the schools," Sabo said. "It's still early but there's a history of strong support."

Sabo's two sons attend Whittier Elementary School, but volunteers from Kenwood and Cityview elementary schools, Sanford middle and Southwest high also made calls this week.

Rohlfing said the campaign hopes to sign up more than 1,000 volunteers to call Minneapolis voters from their homes or the district office between now and Nov. 4. Sabo plans to make the calls two to three times a week until election night.

As Sabo wrapped up her first session, Jakob walked in the dining room and began to eye her laptop. Within seconds he began to fiddle with the mouse. That was his big mistake; it made his mom realize it was almost eight o'clock.

"It's not computer time, it's bedtime," Sabo said.

The person she had called hadn't picked up so she decided it was her last call for the night.

"You see the need for early literacy and other resources at schools throughout Minneapolis," Sabo said about the referendum. "We've got to tell people" about those needs.

Patrice Relerford • 612-673-4395