Updated: Nov. 4, 4:10 p.m. | Posted: Nov. 3, 8:20 p.m.
Minnesota voters took to the polls Tuesday for municipal elections packed with funding issues and focused on schools.
More than 50 school districts across the state filled open seats on their boards. Voters also approved the majority of school district levy requests to fund teacher salaries, utility bills, capital projects and more.
Duluth voters elected Emily Larson as the city's first female mayor and longtime Bloomington Mayor Gene Winstead was re-elected to a fifth term.
Perhaps the most closely watched races took place in St. Paul, where a teachers union-backed slate of candidates swept the vacant seats on the school board and voters returned five incumbents to their seats on the St. Paul City Council.
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Ramsey County Election Manager Joe Mansky said Tuesday evening that he wasn't seeing any major surprises in turnout.
"As far as we can tell, it looks like we're tracking along pretty close to our prediction, which was 13 percent of our eligible population here in St. Paul, which would be about 29,000 voters," Mansky said.
Mansky said St. Paul's Ward 2 — which stretches from the city's Lowertown neighborhood and includes West 7th Street and Summit Hill — and Ward 5 — which includes the Como neighborhood as well as parts of the city's North End and Payne-Phalen neighborhoods — were seeing the highest turnouts by early evening. Both wards played host to hotly contested races for city council seats.
Across the state
Duluth: First woman mayor
Duluth voters elected the city's first female mayor. City council president Emily Larson carried 72 percent of the vote. Opponent Chuck Horton garnered 27 percent in the bid to replace outgoing Mayor Don Ness.
Larson promised during her campaign to focus on continuing the city's economic growth and increase the city's tax base.
She said it's important to listen to all sorts voices from all parts of the city while considering policy issues.
"Some of the challenges moving forward will be: How do we ensure the city grows together, how do we make sure that all of our neighborhoods benefit from what's going to happen in the next chapter of Duluth, and how do we really unify the experience of being a resident of the city?" Larson said.
Larson will succeed popular mayor Don Ness, who announced last year that he wouldn't seek re-election.
Larson was the first of the eight candidates to declare her candidacy. She won the DFL endorsement, a critical advantage in heavily Democratic Duluth.
Duluth also voted down ranked-choice voting. Nearly 75 percent of voters said no to electing mayors and city councilors using the same ballot format as Minneapolis and St. Paul.
St. Paul: City council incumbents re-elected; Ward 2 still outstanding
St. Paul's city council won't change much next year. Incumbents in five of the city's seven wards easily won re-election Tuesday. But one race has yet to be decided.
In the city's First Ward — which covers St. Paul's Frogtown, Summit-University, Thomas-Dale and Snelling-Hamline neighborhoods — incumbent Dai Thao overwhelmingly defeated opponent Trahern Jeen Crews.
Rejoining Thao on the council, incumbents Chris Tolbert, who ran unopposed in southeastern St. Paul's Ward 3, and Dan Bostrom, who represents the city's east side Ward 6, easily carried their precincts.
So did fellow incumbents Russ Stark in the city's Fourth Ward — which represents the Hamline-Midway, Como Park, Merriam Park, St. Anthony Park neighborhoods — and Amy Brendmoen, in the city's north-central Fifth Ward.
The race for the city's Second Ward, which represents downtown St. Paul, its West 7th Street area and the West Side, is still up in the air. Six candidates entered that race after Councilman Dave Thune said he wouldn't seek re-election.
But nobody won a majority of first-choice votes on Tuesday.
Because St. Paul city council races are conducted by ranked-choice voting, the election will be settled Monday, Nov. 9, when officials resume counting, beginning with second-choice votes.
Rebecca Noecker won a 42 percent plurality of those votes. She said she's eager to get to work — especially on economic development issues — but she's not ready to declare victory.
"I live on the West Side," Noecker said. "I feel like we have commercial corridors — Cesar Chavez, Smith — that have so much potential that isn't being realized. I'm a public school teacher by training, so I really want to expand hours at libraries, parks, rec centers. And then more transparency, more responsiveness on the part of government."
Running close behind Noecker in Ward 2 with 38 percent of first-choice votes is former St. Paul DFL party chair Darren Tobolt. He has a slight lead in second-choice votes and remains optimistic about his chances.
"There's about a 200-vote margin right now," he said, "and there's about 1,000 votes out there to be recounted, so it'll be interesting to see them come out."
In each round of counting Monday, the candidate with the fewest number of votes — and any others who don't have a mathematical chance to win — are eliminated. The next-highest choice for the candidates who remain will be added to their respective vote totals until a winner is found.
Jane Prince will join the Second Ward winner as one of St. Paul's two newest council members.
Prince ran unopposed and will represent St. Paul's Seventh Ward. Prince replaces Bill Finney, who was appointed to the east side seat earlier this year when Kathy Lantry stepped down to become public works director.
St. Paul: "Caucus for Change" sweeps school board race
The so-called "Caucus for Change" swept St. Paul's school board election Tuesday, taking all four vacant seats and ousting the sole incumbent in the race, vice chair Keith Hardy.
The group, which gained key endorsements from the DFL and the district's teachers union, upended the conventional wisdom that this year's school board race would be an easy one.
Zuki Ellis, one of the insurgent candidates and the parent of a St. Paul second-grader, will join Steve Marchese, Jon Schumacher and Mary Vanderwert in setting up a new majority in a historic overhaul of St. Paul's school board.
Among the district's chief concerns: discipline, and falling enrollment. St. Paul's disciplinary policy shifted several years ago to cut suspensions and keep kids in school where they could learn. That's roiled the staff, students and parents.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman met with the four newly elected school board members Wednesday. He said they shared concerns about how district policies have been rolled out in the past. But he said he expects the new members to back Superintendent Valeria Silva in her commitment to equity and quality education.
"One need not be afraid that this is all of a sudden going to be a school board that comes in and is just fighting with the superintendent," Coleman said. "I think that they can be supportive and helpful in her getting her work done."
Coleman has supported Silva's decisions in the past. He says he expects the new board to get parents and the community involved when rolling out new policies.
Statewide: School funding measures
Voters across the state yesterday approved the vast majority of school district requests for increased funding.
In total, including requests made previously in the calendar year, 68 school districts across the state asked for capital project or building bond levies. That's a record number going to voters in a single year, said Greg Abbott, director of communications with the Minnesota School Boards Association.
Districts across the state were seeking about $1.8 billion in requests to finance school buildings and other capital projects. The Minnesota School Boards Association said on Wednesday morning that 23 districts had received approval for bonding and capital requests while 15 attempts failed.
The Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district received approval for $180 million, mostly for a new elementary school and security improvements across the district. Requests for more capital funding from St. Cloud, Grand Rapids and North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale school districts were voted down.
Edina Public Schools received approval earlier in the year for $125 million in funds, partly to build an addition and upgrade Edina High school.
Of the 52 districts requesting more funding for operations, 47 school districts received voter approval on at least one ballot question, according to the Minnesota School Board Association. All operating levy increases were rejected in at least five school districts: Cook County, Maple Lake, Ortonville, Pipestone and North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale. As of Wednesday morning, the results of nine operating levies were not yet available.
In Eastern Carver County, voters approved both public school levies by 69 percent. One measure would increase the district's per-pupil revenue authorization from $380 to $829. The other would authorize a $66.7 million building bond.
In Brown County, 92 percent of voters decided to renew the Comfrey Public Schools' expiring referendum to authorize spending of just under $630 per student.
Morrison County voters approved a $374-per-student increase in revenue for Swanville schools.
Voters in the Fridley public schools area staunchly supported both of the school district's ballot questions — one to renew the district's existing revenue authorization and another to issue a new building bond. Nearby, voters in the Forest Lake school district voted down a request for $18 million for high school track and arts center upgrades but approved $143 million for building repairs and increased security.
School levies generally get wide support from Minnesota voters, especially in years where there's no presidential election. More than 90 percent of operating levy requests were approved this year, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association.
Last year voters approved nearly 75 percent of levy requests. In 2013, that number was nearly 90 percent, the highest success rate for school levies in over 30 years.
Across the country
MPR News reporters Meg Martin, Dan Kraker, Nancy Lebens, Peter Cox, Jon Collins, Riham Feshir and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Correction (Nov. 4, 2015): An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that voters in the Forest Lake school district rejected both district school building bond measures. The story also incorrectly identified the area Jane Prince will represent.