Voters in Hawley, Minn., will decide whether to grant their school district's request for a new middle school. In Canby, in the southwest corner of the state, district officials say they need $8 million to update the high school gym. And in Eden Prairie, district officials want to make sure they can keep up with ongoing expenses.
All told, voters in 21 Minnesota school districts will weigh in on about $616 million in funding measures Nov. 8.
The bulk of those are requests for levies that will stretch over six to 10 years to pay for everything from teachers to routine maintenance and tech upgrades.
And most of those are renewals of existing levies that district voters approved within the past decade. Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, said he sees the coming elections as a barometer of how voters feel districts have used that money.
"I think the thing, for school districts, is that they are referendums on how they're doing," he said.
That the state's school districts are largely asking voters to approve money for ongoing expenses is a departure from this year's earlier construction bond-heavy ballots in February and August. The largest of those efforts — a request for a $463 million construction bond in the South Washington County district — was roundly rejected in August.
All told, districts have placed 31 funding measures on the ballot so far this year, totaling a little more than $1 billion. Voters have approved about $292 million worth.
In November, only three districts — Cass Lake, Chisholm and Hawley — are asking voters to foot the bill for new buildings, ranging in price from $32 million to about $53 million.
In Eden Prairie, the district placed two 10-year levies on the November ballot; both are renewals.
The first asks voters whether to repeal and replace the existing operating levy, which costs about $1,815 per student, increasing it by $260 per pupil annually. If the proposal passes, district officials calculate, the owner of a $430,000 home would pay about $95 more per year.
The second question asks whether to renew a technology levy that pays for devices, services and maintenance. Superintendent Josh Swanson said that in a few years, the district must also fix the fiber optic network that was installed in its schools over the past decade.
"It's really served its purpose, but when you have to replace that fiber it's buried underground throughout the community," he said. "It costs a lot to maintain."
The district is asking for an increase in its operational levy because state funding hasn't kept up with inflation, Swanson said. Last year, the district tapped its budget reserves for $750,000 to cover the difference.
This year, that gap is closer to $1 million.
"The general fund formula has not kept up with inflation, and we've seen that in the cross-subsidy [for special education and English language learners] as well," Swanson said.
During a community town hall, he said revenue from the operational levy allow the district to provide competitive compensation for its educators.
Eden Prairie ranks among the top 20 districts in the seven-county metro area in teacher pay and averages among the highest for principals, according to state Department of Education.
Amaal Ali, the parent of three district children, said she's seen the difference that funding makes. Her oldest is a high school junior and had to navigate elementary school with larger class sizes than her youngest, who is in second grade.
Ali said she worries about the cuts Eden Prairie officials would need to make if the operational levy fails in November.
"It's worth the investment," she said. "It's worth our kids' education."
Schneidawind, of the school boards association, said districts will typically reassess requests that fall short, and try again later. The South Washington County district, for instance, plans to offer voters a scaled-back bond request in February.
"I think districts are realistic about what their needs are, and they need to balance that with what the community is willing to pay for," Schneidawind said.