Minnesota school districts score big with voters

Apple Valley High School
The big winners Tuesday included the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district, where voters approved a $180 million levy to build a new elementary school and make other upgrades.
Tim Post | MPR News file

Minnesota school districts were largely successful Tuesday in winning voter approval for local tax increases.

A tally by the Minnesota School Boards Association shows 47 out of 52 districts passed operating levies, while 23 out of 37 passed measures to build new schools or make facility improvements. Districts sought the additional local tax help just months after getting a big funding boost from the state.

The big winners Tuesday included the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district, where voters approved a $180 million levy to build a new elementary school and make other upgrades.

Edina, Farmington, Forest Lake, Shakopee and Stillwater were among the other districts that also passed bonding measures. The 14 that failed included Detroit Lakes, Grand Rapids and St. Cloud.

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Districts did better with operating levies. The passage rate for those questions was 90 percent.

Centennial, Farmington, Rochester and South Washington County were among the districts that passed at least one operating levy question. North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale was one of the five that failed. Districts that failed to pass operating levies this year can ask voters again next November.

Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, said he was impressed by the high passage rate.

"That was an excellent outcome," he said. "I think that the voters understand that that's just part of the way we fund schools in Minnesota. It's a state-local partnership where the state does provide the majority of funding. But there is very local and important local component that is provided through operating referendum."

State lawmakers passed an education bill back in the June special session that increased spending for schools by $525 million. It added 2 percent to the basic funding formula each of the next two years.

Many districts decided to put levy questions on the ballot before the amount of new state funding was resolved, said House Education Finance Committee Chair Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie.

Loon said it's hard to draw too many conclusions about the results.

"Every community is unique," she said. "Whatever unique needs they may have identified in their community, they went to the voters and said if you will agree to send more money to the school, we will do these certain things. If the community finds that a good value and important to the parents and to the education of those children, then they probably supported it."

But Loon is drawing at least one conclusion about the bonding measures, which in many cases were driven by the recent expansion of all-day kindergarten and the resulting shortage of classroom space.

"My takeaway from that is always to be very cautious about putting mandates on our schools if you're not going to fully fund those. Because putting more money on the per-pupil formula to account for having all-day kindergarten for all children is one thing, but it doesn't account for the space and that. That is all born by the local taxpayers."

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who pushed hard for all-day kindergarten, said this week that he didn't see a problem with the high number of bonding requests. He said adding more classrooms for all-day kindergarten is "a step in the right direction." Dayton said school districts might need even more space if he's successful in his push for universal pre-kindergarten.

"We've been behind so many other states in our failure to address these earlier year needs," he said. "If we need to build more school buildings to catch up, then that's what we should be doing."

On the operating levies, Dayton said school districts are just catching up from a decade of underfunding. He noted that he tried unsuccessfully last session to provide a larger increase in school funding.

Senate Education Committee Chair Chuck Wiger said he was pleased with the overall Election Day outcome but disheartened by the levy setback in his home school district.

Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, said he's concerned about the students in districts where levies fail because they might not be getting an equal opportunity.

"Some districts where measures didn't pass, it may be because of the property tax burden, and not just a vote against education, but just the issue of the property taxes. So, I think equalization needs to be reviewed again next session."