Voters across Minnesota approved seven of every 10 school-related referenda on Tuesday, in many cases agreeing to raise their own property taxes to provide extra dollars for their districts.
In all, 123 of the 176 referenda that were on ballots across the state won approval. Those 176 questions were spread out across 126 different school districts. At least 96 of those districts, or 76 percent, saw at least one question pass. The districts were asking voters to approve referendum questions that either maintain or increase spending.
"We're breathing a pretty big sigh of relief," said Dennis Carlson, superintendent of Anoka-Hennepin, the state's largest school district.
Voters there approved two ballot questions, though only the second will result in a property tax increase. In addition, voters rejected a third ballot question in Anoka-Hennepin, but Carlson and other officials had been most anxious about the first question, which ended up passing with 63 percent approval. That question would renew an annual tax levy that brings in an estimated $48 million in property tax funds.
Before the vote, the district said a rejection of that first question would lead to the closure of five schools and the loss of 560 teachers.
"It would have left us in very bad shape," Carlson said.
In 43 districts — about a third of all districts that went to voters Tuesday — officials only sought the renewal of an existing levy, a move that allowed them to argue for a 'yes' vote without a net tax increase.
That more conservative approach appeared to work. From Ada-Borup to Hutchinson to Mankato, renewal questions were nearly unanimously approved. Only one district, ROCORI, saw voters reject a renewal levy.
"The decision to renew was a critical decision, economically, especially in the community we live in," said Warroad superintendent Craig Oftedahl. He noted Warroad's community's largest employer — Marvin Windows — has struggled during the down economy, which the school board took into consideration when deciding what to put before voters. It appears they made the right choice; the renewal-instead-of-increase question passed with 72 percent support.
Another 21 districts put multiple questions on the ballot, one of which was often referred to as a "straight renewal." That allowed voters to renew an existing levy in one vote, then decide in a separate vote whether to raise more funds for the school by approving a tax increase. In all 21 districts — including Brainerd, Chatfield, and Roseau — voters at the very least approved the renewal, though they also approved the second, tax-increasing question in many cases.
In Thief River Falls, voters renewed two existing levies, then approved a $54 million construction project that will see improvements made to four buildings in the district. That was the most expensive school capital project in the state.
While districts had more luck by only seeking renewals, there were still plenty of districts that won tax increases from their voters. In all, 62 districts were only seeking approval of referenda Tuesday that would raise taxes; 35 of those districts (56%) were successful, including in Badger, Crookston, Montevideo, St. Charles, and Wheaton.
While voters in Austin approved nearly $30 million in borrowing for remodeling and building expansion, voters in Bemidji rejected a $13 million question for a new elementary school building. In addition, voters in Albany, Duluth, Fairmont, Milaca, Owatonna, Sauk Rapids-Rice, Sleepy Eye, Stillwater, and Waconia rejected multiple questions that each sought separate tax hikes.
"I have no doubt our community values education," said Stillwater superintendent Corey Lunn, in a statement. Voters in Dunn's district rejected three measures: A levy increase, a separate levy for technology, and borrowing for school renovations. "I recognize that for many voters the decision simply came down to economics."
In Fairmont, officials say the rejection of the measures will mean another $500,000 will have to be cut from next year's budget, which will include layoffs in addition to those made earlier this year. "It's kind of a sad day for the school kids," noted superintendent Joe Brown.
About 90 miles away, in Owatonna, the school district's bid to buy the Pillsbury college campus failed by just 11 votes out of 7,800 ballots cast. Two other ballot questions also failed were conditional on passing the first question.
"There's a strong message there that people were very split on this," said Tom Sager, Owatonna's director of finance and operations. "Now what we have to do is pick up the pieces and learn from this."
DISTRICTS WHERE VOTERS APPROVED ALL SCHOOL REFERENDA
East Grand Forks
Long Prairie-Grey Eagle
Marshall County Central
New York Mills
North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale
Spring Lake Park
Thief River Falls
West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan
White Bear Lake
DISTRICTS WHERE VOTERS REJECTED ALL SCHOOL REFERENDA
Eastern Carver County (Chaska & Chanhassan)
DISTRICTS WHERE VOTERS SPLIT THEIR VOTE
Anoka-Hennepin (approved Q.1 and Q2, rejected Q.3)
Cloquet (approved Q.1, rejected Q.2)
East Central (approved Q.1 and Q.3, rejected Q.2)
Foley (approved Q.1 and Q.2, rejected Q.3)
Glencoe-Silver Lake (approved Q.1, rejected Q.2)
Inver Grove Heights (approved Q.1, rejected Q.2 and Q.3)
Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton (approved Q.1, rejected Q.2)
Marshall (approved Q.1, rejected Q.2) Nevis (approved Q.1, rejected Q.2)