Minnesota voters strongly backed schools at polls

Three people look down at notes while wearing face masks.
Candidates for Minnetonka school board participate in student-led forum on Oct. 18.
Photo by Amin Rahmatullah

Minnesota schools have dealt with a lot lately. The pandemic still forces some students, teachers and their families into quarantine. Parents argued at school board meetings over masking and racial equity. And many districts asked voters for more money to pay for staffing, technology and repairs.

On Tuesday voters heard those requests and decided to give many districts a boost.

“Statewide, it was a good night for schools,” said Greg Abbott, spokesperson for the Minnesota School Boards Association.

Voters gave district funding requests a higher than average approval rate.

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“I have to be honest that I think a lot of people in the school districts — after a year and a half of dealing with the pandemic and distance learning and masking and not masking — they probably didn’t know what to expect,” Abbott said. “But in the end I think people realized, when it comes down to it, they want to support the kids and the school.”

Of the 55 districts asking for local taxpayer funding for day-to-day operating costs, three out of four got approval. That’s far above last year’s 51 percent passage rate.

Bond referendums and capital project levies — to pay for school technology and building projects — didn’t fare quite as well. There was a 59 percent passage rate, which is still better than the average 55 percent passage rate schools see normally in the state.

Minnesota schools only get about 10 percent of their funding from federal sources. Another approximately 65 percent comes from the state. Local property taxes bring in around 20 percent of revenue.

Schools that got voter approval Tuesday will be able to make the staff hires they need or invest in building or technology upgrades and maintenance. For those schools that didn’t, it could mean layoffs, school closures or the end of some programs.

“Any time you do depend on referendums for critical revenue, you’re going to have some disappointments because we’ve never had a year where 100 percent of them have passed,” said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts.

Dozens of districts also had regularly scheduled board elections this year. But an even higher number had special elections to fill vacant seats that opened unexpectedly. Close to 70 school board members quit this year, triple the resignations in a normal year.

The vacant seats were, in some cases, due to exhaustion with COVID-19 and sometimes emotional disagreements over masking and equity. Many of these same issues also took center stage in the platforms of many school board candidate campaigns.

According to Abbott, there was a lot of competition to fill empty board seats, but in his first analysis of early results, most voters chose incumbents to stay in those roles.

“There were a few districts where incumbents were defeated by challengers, but for the most part, most of the incumbents got back in,” Abbott said.

The South Washington County school district saw a heated race this year. Nine candidates competed to fill four seats. Four of those candidates chose to group themselves together to run on a similar platform. They described themselves as conservative on their shared website, opposed mask mandates in schools and expressed concern about critical race theory — not taught in their district.

But only one of those candidates, Eric Tessmer, won a seat with almost 12 percent of the vote. Incumbents took the three other open positions.

Incumbent Katie Schwartz, who won nearly 14 percent of the vote, said she was surprised the race wasn’t closer. She said she’s taking the results as community approval to continue equity work as well as masking and other COVID-19 safety protocols in the district.

“I think the community believes in masking ... and equity,” Schwartz said. “It really makes me happy to know the community does value the health and safety of students and making sure that all students have what they need to learn the way they need to learn.”

In Minnetonka, educational equity was an issue for eight candidates competing for three open board seats. But in that district, a group of high school students stepped up to encourage voters to take action.

They led a forum in October for candidates to address questions from students and community members on their priorities for school leadership.

Three students ask questions as moderators.
Minnetonka high school students Jin Bang (left), Deepti Pillai and Maheen Rahmatullah lead a forum for school board candidates on Oct. 18.
Photo by Amin Rahmatullah

Maheen Rahmatullah, a 10th-grade student who helped lead the forum, said she was glued to her computer at 8 p.m. on election night, refreshing the Minnesota Secretary of State’s website as she watched results come in. Two of her preferred candidates won seats on the board.

“I know for sure that our candidate forum did make a really big impact. It brought voters in. It really educated voters,” Rahmatullah said. “It’s really gratifying to feel that sense of accomplishment that, you know, we might not be able to vote, but we still had a stake in the game, and we still did something to better this election.”

Rahmatullah’s classmate, Deepti Pillai, hopes her preferred candidates’ election wins mean she and her classmates will have board members who will listen to them.

“It became so clear (to me) how hard it can be to enact change when you don’t have that authoritative and administrative power,” Pillai said. “Looking forward, it feels so good to know that there’s at least two members on the school board now who will listen to us and be there and are looking for the same change we are.”

In Minnesota’s second-largest district, four St. Paul school board seats were on the ballot — including a special election for an empty seat left by a recent resignation.

Much of the campaign in that race centered on declining enrollment. Administrators have suggested closing five schools and merging or changing programs at other schools.

Among the four-year term winners was Jim Vue, who was initially named to the school board after the death of chair Marny Xiong. But new board chair Jeannie Foster, up for reelection, opted to run for a two-year special term, left by a resignation, instead of reelection to a second full term.

She faced a strong challenge from Clayton Howatt. He'd won endorsement from Mayor Melvin Carter, two progressive council members, the city's DFL party and the district's teacher's union. Foster won anyway.

The results mean Foster vacates her current seat, leaving the board one member short until new terms start in January — and possibly short of votes to pass the controversial restructuring plan.

Tim Nelson contributed reporting for this story.