Minnesota's largest school district, Anoka-Hennepin, is one of dozens of districts asking voters to raise their property taxes to fund schools. The suburban district will have four questions on the November ballot that, if approved, would increase property taxes on a $250,000 home by about $330 a year.
"November is a time when we truly test the mettle of where people are in the support of those schools," said Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent Roger Giroux.
Giroux said Anoka-Hennepin is asking voters to renew a levy that's about to expire, and to approve new levies to restore funding for transportation and extracurricular activities that was cut in recent years. The district is also seeking voter approval to borrow money for school technology. If the referendums don't pass, Giroux said the district will close schools and lay off as many as 500 teachers.
"People say that's dramatic, it's a scare tactic. That's the unfortunate part, it isn't?" Giroux said. "That's the way Minnesota is choosing now to fund its schools is by public vote."
The vast majority of Minnesota districts now have operating levies, and many of those levies are up for renewal. A survey by the Minnesota School Boards Association found 91 of the state's 341 districts are considering ballot questions this year, the second-highest number since the association began tracking referendums nearly three decades ago. The association said one reason for the large number is that the state increased the basic education funding formula by just one percent next year. That, school officials say, is not enough to keep up with inflation.
The executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, Charlie Kyte, said superintendents with referendums on the ballot this fall are very nervous, because the stakes are high.
"Every place that they could cut that wasn't apparent to the public, they've cut. And they've tried to squeeze everything they can, and they've become really fairly efficient," said Kyte. "And now they know that without the funding that they need, they don't have anywhere to go, but to start laying off front-line teachers, front-line employees."
That's the case in White Bear Lake, where voters narrowly rejected a measure to renew the district's levy last year.
"We're back on the ballot this November, and desperately need to have this levy pass," said Superintendent Ted Blaesing.
Blaesing said if voters don't approve the referendum this fall, the district will close five schools and eliminate 100 teaching positions. He said he's being very clear about what will happen if the referendum fails, unlike last year.
"We purposely took the high road, we didn't talk about logical consequences," said Blaesing. "We didn't lead with that last year, and that was probably an error."
Blaesing is frustrated with the way Minnesota funds schools, and said he and many superintendents now spend much of their time as "professional beggers" asking the public for money. He said the outcome of this year's referendum may hinge not only on how voters feel about their schools, but also on other factors beyond education. School leaders worry that at a time when gas prices are high and the stock market is volatile, voters may be unwilling to raise their taxes to fund schools.
In the Dassel-Cokato School District west of the Twin Cities, Superintendent Jeff Powers said it's a challenge to persuade voters in the largely agricultural district to pass a property tax increase.
"Right now, they may think the school's important, and they may support us, but expenses are high," Powers said.
Voters in the Dassel-Cokato district rejected levy refendums in each of the past two years. Last year, more than half of the levy referendums on the ballot in Minnesota failed. That's the worst success rate in the entire time the School Boards Association has been tracking referendums. School officials say referendums tend to be less successful in general election years, when voters are focused on big races. They hope districts will have better luck in this off-year election, when they'll work to get education supporters to the polls.