Voters in several Minnesota communities rejected their school districts’ requests for additional local funding, prompting some schools to begin planning for major budget cuts.

More than 40 districts asked voters to renew or increase local operating or technology levies or approve borrowing for major construction projects. But with attention focused on the presidential election, other high-profile races and the economic uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, many of those districts came up empty-handed.

Just over half of the districts with operating levies on the ballot won voter approval, the lowest passing rate since 2008, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association. Just 17 levies were approved, the smallest number in any election since 1996.

“This was not a good year for referenda,” said Greg Abbott, communications director for the association. “People are worried about their pocketbook, the economy, their jobs and the pandemic.”

Abbott said the surge in early voting was also challenging for school leaders, who typically spend months trying to make the case for school funding through community meetings. This year, districts had to get their message out to voters by mid-September, rather than November, and compete with the flood of information coming from other political campaigns.

“Pushing through the political noise and getting information out really early were big hurdles to jump,” Abbott said.

Most of the levy questions approved by voters were from districts looking to renew existing levies, rather than increase the tax burden on local property owners. Just four levy increases won approval: the Blue Earth, Nashwauk-Keewatin, Red Lake and Waconia school districts.

Among the districts where voters rejected levy increases: Albert Lea, Austin, Bemidji, Cambridge-Isanti and Monticello. The failure of the levy increase in Shakopee has district leaders preparing for about $5.4 million in additional budget reductions for the 2021-22 school year.

Shakopee Public Schools had already approved about $2 million in cuts for the current and next school years, reductions Superintendent Mike Redmond said were necessary because of a slowdown in enrollment and insufficient funding from the state. Unlike most Minnesota school districts, Shakopee does not have a local operating levy, and district leaders had hoped that gaining that funding source could help shore up the budget.

But after 54% of voters rejected the plan, Redmond said the district is left with few choices. Next year, Shakopee will cut about 60 teaching positions, with the bulk of them being classroom teachers. Other lost positions will include instructional coaches and teachers who provide dedicated help to students in specific subjects. Fifth-grade instrumental music will end, as will middle school sports. Redmond said the cuts will also likely have an impact on the number and frequency of school bus routes.

“We have a significant number of folks currently on our teaching staff doing fantastic work on behalf of kids and the community in a really challenging year,” he said. “And unfortunately at the end of the year we will have to tell them they do not have a position next year.”

Meanwhile, voters in six of the 13 districts with technology levies or bond referendums on the ballot approved those districts’ spending plans. Fridley school district voters renewed a capital projects levy that brings in about $1 million each year for building maintenance and technology expenses. Capital projects levies were also approved by voters in the Badger, Battle Lake, Lancaster and Mabel-Canton districts.