The Association of Metropolitan School Districts asked 36 local school leaders to estimate their financial picture for next year under current state and local funding levels. The state's largest school district, Anoka-Hennepin, predicted the largest deficit at $42 million. Wayzata projected a modest shortfall of $330,000. Five districts predicted no deficit.
AMSD Executive Director Scott Croonquist said half of the surveyed districts are looking for help from voters next month in the form of operating levy referendums.
"Now obviously we hope that situation looks a lot better after Nov. 6," he said. "But I can tell you right now that even if every single one of the referendum questions on the ballot November 6 passes we're going to need the Legislature to act. Because that will not be enough to cover this funding gap."
There are 341 school districts in Minnesota, and 99 have operating levies on the ballot November 6. That's the most referendums since 2001, when 188 districts had ballot questions.
In White Bear Lake, school district officials want voters to help them head off a projected $10 million shortfall next year. Superintendent Ted Blaesing said his district has been struggling with budget cuts for six years.
"It's a little bit like being nibbled to death by ducks. Every year you ratchet up class size or every year you make a program adjustment," he said.
But school leaders warn that operating levies are only a temporary financial fix. They're also counting on state lawmakers to boost education funding in the 2008 session. They say the 1 percent increase they got this year doesn't come close to covering inflation.
AMSD President John Malone, a school board member from Orono, says his district is projecting red ink again just one year after passing a referendum.
"When you go out for a levy referendum, you can't go out for what your district actually needs to sustain your current program and services," he said. "You run into these caps that the state has imposed. And so, we are levying to the full extent of our authority currently. And yet even with that, we still will be running a budget shortfall of approximately $1 million next year unless the Legislature steps up and increases the funding that they currently have allotted."
Some taxpayers are growing weary of what they see as an endless cycle of budget crises and referendum questions. Evan Kaneski of Savage has been speaking out against the referendum in the Prior Lake school district. Kaneski said the cost of schools is getting to be too much to bear.
"So I'm going to be seeing, if it passes, that $524 increase in just the school taxes," he said. "And I'm pretty sure the city is going to be increasing taxes too. For me I'm going to probably be seeing a $600 increase in my taxes."
A longtime opponent of tax increases has an even harsher view. David Strom, president of the Minnesota Free Market Institute, said too many school district officials are describing doom and gloom scenarios. Strom said the threats of teacher layoffs and school closings sound to him like blackmail.
"What these school superintendents ought to be doing, instead of being together and making generalizations and making threats, is opening up their books to the public," he said.
State officials say about a third of the 99 districts with ballot questions this year are seeking renewal of an existing operating levy. Another 40 districts are asking voters to approve facility improvement projects.