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GOP lawmakers question need for school district levies

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Garofalo and Greiling
State Reps. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, and Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, speak in a January 2010 file photo. Garofalo is questioning the need for school districts to ask local voters for money to fund operations.
MPR File Photo/Tom Weber

Minnesota school districts seeking voter-approved tax increases this fall will face something they've never faced before: open opposition from some Republican legislators.

State lawmakers traditionally stay out of local levy decisions. But after delivering a rare funding increase to K-12 school this summer, some Republicans say it's time to speak out against schools that continue to plead poverty.

State Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, chairman of the House Education Finance Committee, said he doesn't like what he's been hearing lately about school district finances. The latest tally from the Minnesota School Boards Association shows about one in three districts are planning to ask voters in November to provide additional operating revenue through local property taxes.

Garofalo is reminding those districts that they just received a significant increase in funding from the state, including a $50 boost in the per-pupil formula. 

"When you're making these additional expenditures at the statewide level, the property tax is not to be used to go back for a second bite of the apple," he said.

Garofalo said he plans to be very vocal about the districts he believes are "abusing the process" when it comes to levy votes. 

The list of referendums won't be finalized until Sept. 16. Garofalo said he hopes some school leaders back off and cancel their referendum plans. 

"The important thing is that we have accountability in dollars," he said. "Unfortunately, we have some school boards that are using people's generosity to engage in the fleecing of taxpayers, and that's just not acceptable."

"We have some school boards that are using people's generosity to engage in the fleecing of taxpayers, and that's just not acceptable."

Garofalo said he'll have more to say about specific school districts in the coming weeks, and he expects other GOP legislators to join him. 

State Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, recently sent a newsletter to constituents asking them to contact school officials about proposed levy referendums and "urge them to drop their request."

"What I urged them to do," Drazkowski said, "Was to contact [school leaders] and say, 'Do you really need to go to the voters again when this additional money came forward, money that you weren't expecting when you made the decision about your budget months ago?'"

A large share of the proposed referendums would renew existing levies. In those cases, taxes would not increase.

Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, said voters need to understand the distinction. Croonquist said voters and state legislators should also understand that districts are not seeking tax increases based solely on the outcome of one legislative session.    

"The facts are very clear that education funding has not kept pace with inflation in Minnesota over the last decade," Croonquist said. "Consequently, school districts have been trimming and cutting substantially during that time frame. And many of them have now reached a point where there's just no more fat left to cut."

Croonquist said funding situations are unique in every school district. He describes the broad accusations from Garofalo as "unfortunate and unfair."

A key House Democrat offered a harsher critique of Garofalo.

"Shame on him for blurring the picture and making it harder for schools to get the money they need for their own students," said state Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville.

Greiling, the lead minority member of the House Education Finance Committee, said she always offered support for school referendums when asked. She also said the chairman is wrong to challenge the integrity of local school leaders — an approach she said would be unprecedented.

 "Having been a school board member myself one time, I know that districts are very slow to the table and hesitant to ask for more property tax increases," Greiling said. "They know, and the superintendents know, that that isn't popular. So when they ask for money, they really need it."

Greiling said she's concerned that Garofalo will be able to use his bully pulpit to help defeat some local referendums. She said the losers in those districts will be the students.

The votes on operating levies and other school issues are scheduled for Nov. 8.