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One in five school districts asking voters for money Tuesday

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Seventy-six of Minnesota's 333 school districts have property tax levy requests on Tuesday's ballot -- a typical number for an off-year election. 

The districts are asking for more local taxpayer support even after they received a nearly half a billion dollar boost in funding from the legislature. 

Minnesota lawmakers approved $485 million in new education funding last session. 

School officials appreciate that money, but many say it wasn't enough to end the need for school levy requests. 

The requests are concentrated more heavily in the Twin Cities metro area, where almost half of the districts have referendums on their ballots. 

Schools will get a 1.5 percent boost in per pupil funding in each of the next two years, but Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, expects that won't keep up with inflation. 

"It's not surprising that we are seeing school districts continue to need to pass referendum elections, really just to keep offering the programs that they offer their students already," said Croonquist. 

By next year districts will receive about $5,400 a year in state money for each student enrolled.  

Croonquist says there's something else to consider - $134 million dollars of that new funding doesn't arrive until next year, and it's meant to fund all day kindergarten. 

And the push for all-day kindergarten seems to have contributed to the number of school districts who are asking voters to approve building projects. 

  "There's a lot of elementary renovations and additions in this mix," said Greg Abbott, communications director for the Minnesota School Boards Association.   "And I think it's probably because with kindergarten being fully funded, they're going to need some space for the kids."

Abbott says there was a change that lawmakers put in place last session that may have kept the number of levy requests down a bit this year. 

The legislature now allows school boards to levy up to $300 per student without voter approval.  The Department of Education says 71 districts have chosen that option.  

Those and other recent changes to how the state finances education aren't likely to reduce the number of school levies voters will see in the future, said Mark Haveman, executive director of the Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence. 

"These modest efforts will help, but I think levy proposals will still be a staple for districts for years to come," Haveman said.

Haveman doesn't necessarily fault districts for approaching voters with levy requests. 

But he thinks school officials could do a better job of being transparent about why they need the extra money, and how it fits into their overall budget, so voters can make a more informed decision on Election Day.