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Paying for school is on the ballot this year across Minnesota

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Rochester high school students can attend CTECH.
Rochester high school students walk out of CTECH, the district's Career and Technical Education Center at the Heintz Vocational and Technical College, in 2016. The Rochester school district is one of dozens across the state that will be asking voters to pass property tax hikes to pay for school buildings and operations on Election Day this year.
Jerry Olson for MPR News | File 2016

Who pays for Minnesota’s public schools?

Well, the short answer is you — the taxpayers — do.

But the long answer is a little more complicated. And it’s important to understand because in a few days, many voters across the state will have a chance to decide how much new tax money they will pay to fund their local schools.

Minnesota public schools get funding for everything from teacher salaries to school building maintenance from a combination of state, federal and local dollars.

Local dollars, in the form of levies — the amount of property tax money a school district needs to get from taxpayers to pay its bills — pay for a significant amount of many schools’ operating and building budgets. And this month, more than 70 districts in Minnesota are asking for voters to approve new referendums — yes-or-no questions school districts put to voters to ask them to approve those levies — or renew expiring school referendums.

The Minnesota School Boards Association has been tracking school referendums for almost two decades, said spokesperson Greg Abbott. 

This election, more than 30 districts are trying to get voter approval for school building bonds, which pay for things like school construction projects, safety upgrades and building maintenance. 

There are also more than 40 districts trying to pass operating levies, which would pay for day-to-day school operating costs like employee salaries and classroom supplies. 

There are two types of operating levies:

  1. New operating referendums ask voters to pay more in property taxes than they already do, to fund general school operating expenses.

  2. A district can only have an operating levy in effect for 10 years. So when a levy runs out, schools ask voters for an operating referendum renewals to avoid losing funding. Renewing an levy doesn’t change taxes.

Some carry more of the burden than others

Abbott said Minnesotans generally vote yes on school referendum questions, and agree to pay for school levies. 

Since his organization started tracking operating levies in 2000, the lowest amount of levies passed was in 2006 when only 42 percent were approved. In 2015, the year with the highest percentage of passed referendums, 90.4 percent were approved.

In the last four years, every school that’s asked for an operating levy renewal, he said, has passed it.

When it comes to bond requests in suburban and urban districts, Abbott says those also generally pass by a wide margin.

Smaller, rural districts outside the Twin Cities metro area are a different story.

“They don’t have that good tax base and rely on a lot of farmland,” Abbot said. “So it impacts farmers harder.”

A recently passed bill from the state legislature is meant to alleviate that pressure on large landowners to fund schools with a tax credit for agricultural and private forest landowners who pay taxes for school bonds.

It’s a change that rural school districts hope will remove some barriers to their referendums this year.

“Each community, it’s really walking a tightrope,” Abbott said. “You have X number of needs and you have to balance that with what your local public can afford. If you’re a farmer, it can hit you pretty hard … with the farm prices, and with the tariffs and what’s happening, farmers are pretty nervous. When things are up in the air, it’s a lot harder to pass these [referendums] in farm country.”

Most of this year’s referendums are in rural districts: Walker-Hackensack-Akeley is asking for $2 million to replace district vehicles and upgrade technology. Ada-Borup is asking for $9 million to update an elementary school and enhance school safety measures. Sauk Rapids-Rice is asking for $37.1 million to replace an elementary school. 

And for some of the districts asking their voters for additional financial support this Election Day, the answer will determine their paths forward.

Sartell-St. Stephen: An operating levy to keep class sizes small

The Sartell-St. Stephen school district near St. Cloud, Minn., an hour northwest of the Twin Cities, is one of the more than 40 Minnesota districts asking voters to approve an operating levy.

A brand-new, $90 million Sartell High School opened this fall, but if voters don’t approve a ballot question, the district could be forced to make budget cuts and increase class sizes.

Voters in this central Minnesota district with about 4,000 students will decide whether to pass an operating levy that would generate $1.77 million annually over the next decade.

“Really, it’s to cover, largely, expenses of having an additional school building open,” said Joe Prom, the district’s business services director. The district is remodeling the old high school building and converting it into a middle school, which is set to open next year.

This is the second time the Sartell-St. Stephen district has tried to pass a levy for operating funds. After a 2018 referendum failed, the district made $1.3 million in cuts, including teachers and administrative staff.

If the referendum doesn’t pass, the district likely will need to raise class sizes, cut activities and change its busing practices.

Unlike other school districts like the nearby St. Cloud Area School District, Sartell doesn’t have a large commercial property district, so residential property owners bear the brunt of the tax impact of a levy increase, Prom said.

If the operating levy is approved, Prom said, the state would provide about 40 percent of the increase in the form of equalization aid, which the Legislature created to help districts with low or moderate tax bases. Local property taxpayers would pay the remaining 60 percent

Rochester: New schools for a growing population

Rochester: New schools for a growing population
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Rochester Public Schools is among the more than 30 districts asking voters to approve bond referendums. 

Voters in the southeast Minnesota city are weighing two bond referendum questions that could amount to a roughly $180 million investment in the construction of new facilities.

There are two questions on the ballot: The first asks voters to approve a $171 million investment in a new elementary school and middle school. If approved, the district would also use the money to buy land for future growth, renovate two elementary schools and update security and auditoriums at all its schools.

The second question — which is contingent on passing the first — involves closing the district’s middle school pools to save money, and using an additional $9.5 million to update and build new pools for its high schools.

With all of the district’s schools at or near capacity, Rochester school officials say these new investments are necessary to keep up with the city’s growth. Rochester is in the midst of a development boom, and enrollment — which has increased by around 1,000 students in the past five years — is projected to increase by an additional 1,200-plus students within the next five years.

Abbott said school bond referendums are much more common now than they were a decade ago. Part of the reason, as in Rochester, is due to population growth. In other areas, full-day kindergarten may be the cause.

“If you went back about a decade ago, we usually averaged about 20 bond requests a year. But when full-day kindergarten came about … there were a lot of school districts adding classrooms to their elementary schools to accommodate that. I think that’s continued,” Abbot says. “This year we have 61 [bond requests].”

Worthington: Sixth request in five years

The Worthington school district has asked five times in as many years for taxpayer approval to build new school buildings — with no success. On Tuesday, the district will ask taxpayers to help pay for a new school building for the sixth time.

District officials say it’s a necessary request: Schools in the southwest Minnesota city are running out of space. The district has been growing at a rate of about 100 new students each year for the last decade, superintendent John Landgaard said — and he doesn’t expect that growth to stop.

“The issue isn't going away,” he said. “The longer we keep kicking the can down the road to address the space, the worse it's going to get.”

While the district’s requests have changed over the years, Tuesday’s ballot will include three yes or no questions involving over $47 million.

The last few referendum votes in Worthington — the most recent of which was held in February — have attracted national attention, due in large part to the opposition that’s formed around them. Some farmers in the largely agricultural district have argued that they would be paying an undue amount of tax dollars for the new school because of their large land holdings.

School board member Linden Olsen said he’s also heard comments from voters about not wanting to pay for a school that serves the town’s largely Latino immigrant population.

The group most vocally opposed to the school bond, called the Worthington Citizens for Progress, has been less active in this latest referendum vote. The group has filed paperwork with the district to continue operating, but have collected just $200 in donations so far and have not spent any money on ads and promotions.

In past referendum votes, the group has hired controversial consultant Paul Dorr, who has worked to defeat school referendums across the Midwest, saying all public schools should be de-funded and calling public education “a sin against God.”

The last referendum vote, in February, failed by just 17 votes. Landgaard said the district has no backup plan if Tuesday’s referendum fails. School board member Lori Dudley said the board hasn’t even discussed what they’ll do if it fails as the others have.

Moorhead: Help for an aging high school

School officials in rural districts like Moorhead hope their referendums will get a boost from the tax credit designed to limit the tax impact on farmers.

Fred Nolan, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association, said that, under the legislation, which became law two years ago, owners of agricultural land now get a 50 percent credit — and the tax break will increase to 70 percent over the next three years.

"This is a big step in increasing the state’s share of local facility costs and partnering with local property taxpayers to build modern equitable facilities for students," he said.

In Moorhead, voters will be asked to approve a $110 million property tax increase for a new high school and career academy.

Rising enrollment in lower grades is expected to push Moorhead High School well past capacity in the next three years. The request would help build a new high school on the site of the current school, where existing athletic fields and a sports center can be incorporated into the new school.

The money would also help turn a closed Sam's Club into a career academy where students can test drive potential jobs in health, transportation or trades.

The district has no Plan B if the referendum fails.


Reporters Alex BaumhardtDan GundersonKirsti Marohn and Catharine Richert contributed to this story.

Correction (Nov. 2, 2019): An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the location of the Sartell-St. Stephen school district.