Duluth voters reject school referendum, approve parks fund

Darlene Krans votes
Darlene Krans of Duluth, Minn. fills out her ballot Tuesday morning at the Kirby Ballroom on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus. Three hours after polls opened, Krans was just the 19th voter to cast a vote at the Kirby Ballroom polling station.
Photo for MPR by Derek Montgomery

Duluth voters rejected three different school referendum options on Tuesday that would have raised property taxes to provide more money for schools.

But as the school measures went down in defeat, voters overwhelmingly supported a city referendum that raises taxes to restore deep cuts to Duluth's parks and libraries.

West Duluth homeowner Mary Matetich was among the majority of voters who voted down the school district referendum questions, which would have raised property taxes and collected up to $5.6 million for schools each year for five years. The district wanted the money to reduce class sizes, buy new text books and help eliminate a $4 million to $5 million budget shortfall for 2013.

A retiree on a fixed income, she cringed when she saw so many tax raising proposals on the ballot, and worried that if the measures passed, she might be in big trouble.

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"Personally, it will probably tax me right out of my house," she said. "It's hard on the seniors, so I voted against, only because everything else has gone up so ridiculously."

"As a Duluth citizen, I just can't afford to put any more into taxes," Matetich said.

There was division over the referendum questions even among some school board members. Two of them urged voters to defeat the measures, saying the district didn't need the extra money and that predictions of big cuts weren't true.

When it came to funding parks, west Duluth resident Louie St. George said he supported the referendum, even as he voted against the school's proposals. A reorganization plan several years ago left some voters unhappy with district leadership, and St. George said he no longer trusts the district.

"I feel like the local school board hasn't shown enough responsibility or wherewithal to manage their funds," he said. "And for the city, I think they've kind of done a better job of keeping their business in order."

While school measures were shot down, 57 percent of Duluth voters said they were willing to pay more taxes for improvements in parks and library services — 3.2 percent more for a tax hike will raise $2.6 million dollars annually. And city leaders have promised the fund will free up more money to keep two branch libraries from being shut down in January.

Duluth Mayor Don Ness said he was a little surprised the measure passed by such a wide margin, with the poor economy and with taxes already on the rise for many property owners. It was a difficult time to ask people to pay even more.

"We were very sensitive to that. But at the same time, the parks and libraries are also important to the citizens of Duluth and we trust the voters enough to simply bring that question to them," Ness said. "Had they voted it down, we would have accepted that and said, well, that's a reflection of the priorities of our community."

Duluth's referendum was unusual, since most other voters in the state saw new funding requests only from school districts. But some say if cuts in state government aid continue, that could change.

Dan D'Allaird, co-chair of a Duluth citizen's group that campaigned for the parks referendum, said as cities are forced to cut into basic services that people want and expect, city leaders may turn to voters for relief.

"Should other cities consider this? I hope they will. A lot of cities in tight budgetary times don't consider parks and libraries core city services. So if the city is reluctant to fund it, let's take it to the taxpayers and see if they value these facilities enough to pay for them," he said.

Passage of the parks referendum means the owner of an average priced Duluth home worth about $158,000 will pay an additional $5 a month in taxes. But that's not counting other tax levy increase at the city, school and county level.

Plus, with recent changes to state tax regulations, the cumulative tax increase for many property owners could be significantly higher.