Dozens of school districts seeking tax hikes next month

Polling Place
Turnout is expected to be high next month when voters head to the polls. Voters in more than 50 Minnesota school districts will also decide whether to approve local referenda.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

Fifty-six districts will ask a total of 74 questions on various ballots next month, according to a count by Minnesota Public Radio news.

Most of those questions are 'operating levies,' which will raise taxes to pay for regular operating expenses. More than a dozen questions are 'bond levies' which raise money for capital, or construction projects.

The largest district going to voters for an operating levy is Minneapolis. The district is looking to pass an eight-year levy that would increase taxes on an average $250,000 home by an extra $200 a year.

The Duluth School District has three questions on the ballot: The first renews the district's current levy, the other two seek additional funds. The vote comes a year after the district embarked on a controversial five-year plan to improve and replace the district's aging facilities by closing some buildings and building new schools.

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The controversial aspect was that the nearly $300 million plan wasn't put to voters for their approval. The three votes on the ballot next month are not related to last year's building plan.

Levy campaign
Signs like these are scattered across lawns in Minneapolis, in support of next month's operating levy. If approved, property taxes would increase in the Minneapolis School District by about $200 a year for a $250,000 home.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

In terms of bond levies, the Hutchinson School District - to the west of the metro - is, by far, asking for the most. Two bond questions, if both approved, would raise a total of $59 million to build a new school and renovate old ones.

The Lake Park-Audubon district, in western Minnesota, is seeking $20 million to fund a new high school and build an addition to an existing building.

The election, however, comes at a time when voters are nervous about the economy, which could effect results.

"You always have a risk that something or the other happens right prior to the election that causes opinion to swing one way or another," says Charlie Kyte, who heads the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. "One of those issues is what happens to the economy and what happens to the stock market."

But some district leaders are still hopeful, even if they can't control some of the factors that might determine their levies' fates. That's the case in Minneapolis.

"This is a city that has passed three referenda in the past in a town in which the majority of people who live in the city don't have kids in the schools at all," said Minneapolis Superintendent Bill Green, in an interview.

Minneapolis voters last approved a levy in 2000 with 73 percent approval.

"It's a special kind of civic duty that people have expressed in the past and that I'm sensing is still there," according to Green.

Most districts have indicated they'll have to make budget cuts if next month's levies fail. Many - including Blooming Prairie, Inver Grove Heights, Milaca, McLeod West, and Red Lake Falls - are making at least their second effort to pass ballot questions, after previous defeats.

The frustration is apparent in districts like St. James, where one school board member resigned in protest after voters defeated a levy in September.

The state has increased funding each year for schools, but the districts say those increases aren't enough to keep pace with inflation or other prices jumps, such as gasoline and diesel costs.

School funding is also sure to get a lot of attention next year at the Capitol, when the Legislature convenes for a new session. A new budget will be presented by Gov. Tim Pawlenty early next year, and there are also plans by some lawmakers to try to change the state's funding system.

A list of districts with school referenda is available here.