School districts across the state this week received voter endorsement of construction and renovation projects topping $539 million.
Voters approved seven of 15 building referendums on Tuesday. The eight that failed were all in greater Minnesota and would have totaled more than $250 million in building projects.
"This year was a mixed bag of results," said Greg Abbott, a spokesman for the Minnesota School Boards Association. "We saw a lower passage rate than in previous years."
While the two urban and suburban projects passed, results of the referendums held outside the Twin Cities metro area varied, with both wide margins of support and narrow margins of opposition. Proposed projects in Owatonna and Lester Prairie failed by about 1% and half a percent, respectively.
The approvals included a nearly 60% "yes" vote to a $275 million plea from the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District to consolidate nine elementary schools into seven larger, renovated schools and reduce three middle schools to two renovated ones. Boundary changes won't take effect until fall 2022 when the new and updated buildings open. The money would also be used to add secure entrances to all schools and update classrooms.
"We are so grateful to our community for this vote of support," Superintendent Christine Osorio wrote on the district's website. "These improvements will impact students and families for years to come, and ensure that all our schools provide the quality learning environment our community expects and our students deserve."
About 70% of voters in the Eden Prairie School District voted in support of a $39 million building referendum to move and expand preschool programs in the elementary schools and move sixth-graders to the middle school. The proposal included security upgrades, which will begin as soon as possible, the district said.
Also approved was a project between two Iron Range districts. Voters approved $147 million for the Virginia School District and $30.9 million for the Eveleth-Gilbert School District to collaborate to establish a new career academy high school and to build new elementary schools.
Voters in the Marshall, Pillager and Round Lake-Brewster school districts backed proposed projects.
The largest of the rejected funding requests was in Owatonna, which had sought voter approval for $116 million to construct a new high school. That number had been scaled back from $138 million after $22 million in offers of cash and materials from major employers in the city.
The "no" votes outnumbered the "yes" votes by about 1%.
"We are very disappointed with the vote results," said school board chairman Mark Sebring. "Our needs are real, and the funding does not exist to address them."
Other districts that were not granted their requests include: Zumbrota-Mazeppa, Staples-Motley, Moose Lake, Frazee-Vergas, Wrenshall, Lester Prairie and Pine River-Backus.
"It's tougher to do a bond in greater Minnesota, especially if you're in a district with farmland because the impact is not equitable," Abbott said. "Right now you've got farmers worried about prices and tariffs and everything is up in the air and on top of that you add a bond referendum. It can be tough to say yes to that."
Most of the proposals included security improvements to the schools, which is something Abbott said has been a priority for several years. Most of the improvements include moving offices and securing entrances, he said.
The varied results had the statewide teacher's union concerned about equity between schools in different communities.
"The way we fund public education in Minnesota grows more unfair and unequal after every levy election because there are always winners and losers," said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota. "The quality of our students' education shouldn't depend on the political skills of their educators and generosity of their communities."
No matter the results, Abbott said, the building needs of these schools remain.
"It's just a matter of figuring out what your community is able to support," he said.