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School districts tally referendum results

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Sixty-eight school districts across Minnesota asked voters to approve property tax increases on Election Day. The majority, 58 percent, failed. But others including one for the St. Paul school district passed.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

The number of school levy referendums approved by voters adds up to a 42 percent success rate.

"The percentage passing rate is probably one of the lower ones we've seen since we've started tracking it in 1980," says Greg Abbott who's with the Minnesota School Boards Association.

Abbott says it all comes down to the way public schools are funded. He says when the state didn't provide enough money for cities and schools, districts had to start competing with county and city tax increases.

"Really, the only issue on property taxes you can vote against are the schools whenever they come calling," he says. "So I think it was maybe a signal that it's time to lay off the property taxes. We've got to get the state more involved in funding education."

Classroom
A referendum in the Park Rapids School District was approved by voters. Officials there warned that if it failed, they were going to eliminate all extra activities, including sports, fine arts -- even the National Honor Society.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Abbott says many districts are still hoping the state will produce additional money for schools. But for now, the nearly 40 districts where referendums failed face a tough year.

The Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district asked voters to support a $6 million increase over the current $10 million-a-year levy referendum that was passed four years ago. The referendum lost by about 3,000 votes.

District Business Manager Mark Stotts says all indications prior to the referendum were pretty positive.

"So, it kind of caught us by surprise," Stotts says. "And of course, there's disappointment. But we'll have to move forward."

Stotts says the levy would have helped maintain programs. He says the district faces some hard questions when it tries to balance the budget.

"Our reserves are virtually depleted after this year," Stotts explains. "So we're going to do what's necessary in order to balance the budget in the upcoming year and even looking beyond into next year."

Stotts says the district hasn't starting talking yet about what they'll need to cut or change.

A referendum also went down for the Stillwater schools. The levy would have generated an additional $6 million in revenue. Stillwater district officials say since the measure failed they will have to cut $3 to $4 million from the upcoming school budget.

Of the successful school levies, perhaps none had more at stake than the one in the Park Rapids School District in northern Minnesota. A majority of voters, 55 percent to 44 percent, approved the measure, which will provide the district close to $1 million a year for five years.

Had the referendum failed, school administrators would have eliminated all high school extra-curricular activities, including sports, drama, speech and music programs. Park Rapids would have been the first district in the state to take such a drastic step. Superintendent Glenn Chiodo says a referendum failure would have triggered a huge exodus of students to other school districts.

"This has been a very difficult road for all of us. With this particular referendum this year, I think it was widely known that the commitment by the community was essential for the success of this," Chiodo says.

The St. Paul School district was also successful. The district asked for $30 million dollars a year for the next six years. The state will pay one quarter of that with city taxpayers picking up the rest. 62 percent of voters approved the measure. The money will reduce class sizes and pay for early childhood programs. It's the third successful school levy referendum for St. Paul since 2000.

Superintendent Meria Carstarphen says she's gratified by the clear majority support from St. Paul voters.

"Around 80 percent of our property tax payers don't have kids in school," "And I want those people to know that did not go unnoticed by leadership in our school community. That means, that they get that the health of St. Paul as a city is deeply tied to a high quality public school system."

But this election is dominated by failing referendums. That has public school supporters saying voter-approved tax increases are not the way to fund schools. There is wide support to pressure the legislature to take on more of the cost of funding schools.