More than 40 Minnesota school districts with funding questions on the ballot are hoping their pleas aren’t overlooked — or rejected — in an election dominated by high-profile contests and an economy unsettled by the global pandemic.
Across the state, districts are seeking voters’ approval to renew or increase their local operating levies, take on debt to pay for construction projects or secure funding for technology purchases. School leaders say the local funding, already a critical part of K-12 budgets in Minnesota, is particularly important in a year when the state’s budget is under strain and enrollment has dropped in many districts. But with the pandemic forcing districts to scrap the in-person events traditionally used to drum up support for school referendums, and many voters casting their ballots well ahead of Nov. 3, it’s harder to tell how the vote will go.
“When you’re doing a bond or operating levy, you need to get your message out for why you need it; if they don’t know why, they’ll vote no,” said Greg Abbott, communications director for the Minnesota School Boards Association. “It’s hard to get through all the presidential election noise … and this year in a pandemic, it’s even harder.”
Most of the districts with levies or referendums on the ballot are outside the metro, though there are two suburban districts — Fridley and Orono — seeking technology levies. A third metro-area district, Shakopee Public Schools, is asking voters to approve an operating levy that would be phased in over the next decade.
Shakopee Superintendent Mike Redmond said enrollment has plateaued in the once fast-growing district, and state funding hasn’t been sufficient to keep up with growing costs. Unlike most districts in the metro, Shakopee does not have a local operating levy to help cover teachers’ salaries, classroom supplies and other costs.
Already, the school board has approved about $2 million in budget cuts for the current school year and next year, eliminating some classroom paraprofessional positions, along with some instructional coaches and administrative staff. If voters do not approve the levy, the district plans to take another $5.4 million from its budget, with cuts to teaching jobs, middle school sports, fifth-grade band and more staff positions.
Redmond said district leaders had initially planned to propose a bigger local levy but changed course once the pandemic took hold. The district says the owner of a $280,000 home — average for the district — would see taxes go up about $4 per month over the first four years of the levy, and then see no increase in the following six years.
“If we’re going to continue to do what we think is providing great value for our community, in order to do that, something has to give,” Redmond said.
District leaders said the pandemic is likely to exacerbate budget shortfalls driven by rising costs and lagging state and federal support, particularly for special education.
Waconia Public Schools is seeking to increase the operating levy voters in that district approved two years ago. Superintendent Pat Devine said that funding hasn’t been enough to stave off cuts; the district has sliced more than $2 million from its budget in the past two years. If voters turn down the levy increase, Devine said another $1 million in cuts are ahead, which would result in larger classes, fewer extracurricular activities and staff reductions.
“Considering that there will be fewer state resources due to the pandemic, more school districts could find themselves going to taxpayers to raise revenue locally or making cuts to their programming to adjust to state-level shortfalls in funding,” he said.
In southwest Minnesota, two districts are seeking to decrease their voter-approved operating levies — a nearly unheard-of move. Both are seeking to minimize the tax hit on property owners as they look to either take on debt for a building project or levy taxpayers for technology costs.
The Red Rock Central School District is seeking voter approval of a $42 million bond referendum for the construction of a new school, replacing the district’s more than 100-year-old building. The district is also asking voters to lower the previously approved operating levy, something Superintendent Todd Lee said was made possible by the district’s cost savings from closing one of its school buildings. If both questions pass, the owners of a $75,000 home, average for the district, would see taxes go up by about $9 per year, Lee said.
In the nearby district of Milroy, which has a single elementary school serving about 50 students, the district is looking to pass a technology levy and drop the amount on its operating levy. Superintendent Heidi Sachariason said school leaders had been planning even before the pandemic to try to redistribute the school’s tax burden more evenly among local property owners, rather than placing a heavier share on owners of farmland.
Sachariason said she thinks local voters understand the plan, but being unable to hold public meetings to answer questions hasn’t been ideal.
“It’s easier when you can just talk to people face to face, so that has been a challenge,” she said.
Abbott, of the School Boards Association, said the fact that there are districts willing to give up some voter-approved funding to cover more urgent costs is evidence of the delicate dance schools are performing as they balance their own needs with those of the broader community.
“Especially in these kind of times, you walk a really thin line of wanting what’s best for your kids, but not putting too much on your taxpayers,” he said.