Congratulations and concerns in the wake of school referendum victories

Joe Nathan
Education Columnist

Congratulations to the many parents, community members and educators who produced a record approval rate of local district referendums. This was a huge amount of work, especially in an economy that is challenging for many Minnesotans.

According to the Minnesota School Boards Association, 51 of 59 operating levies were approved. That’s 86.4 percent, higher than any other year since the association began keeping records in 1980. Moreover, 23 of 26 requests for buildings or other capital expenses were approved – an 88 percent approval rating.

Area districts where referendums passed include Braham, where $577,000 annually will continue to go toward facilities and programming.

“I think it was approved because the district has done exactly what they said they would when it was originally passed,” said Greg Winter, Braham superintendent. “The last four years have proven this on the projects we have completed across the district. Along with these projects, we have implemented many CIS (College in the Schools) courses and vocational programming. We have also invested in all-day, every-day kindergarten even before we have received the funding for this program. We knew how beneficial this would be to our students.”

Ray Queener, Cambridge-Isanti superintendent, explained his district’s successful $10 million referendum.

“It will fund projects around safety, security, repairs and maintenance for district buildings and grounds,” he said. “These include configuring all front entrances of schools for a controlled visitor management system, and separating bus, car and pedestrian traffic in many parking lots. In addition, several deferred maintenance projects including HVAC system improvements, ADA projects, roof replacement projects, window replacement project, and other maintenance items. Finally, projects include an update and renovation to the transportation building at the bus terminal.”

Queener said the goal was to reach and inform all voters of project details and the impacts to taxes for payable 2014.

“Absent a scientific survey, providing reasons for its passage is speculation at this point,” he said. “However, I have been told that the request was reasonable, only included those most critical components of the long-range facility plan, and the tax impact was manageable. There is a lot of pride in the Cambridge-Isanti School District, and I believe the majority of residents that voted understood the need and wanted to provide resources to maintain the taxpayer assets, our schools.”

In Stillwater, $16.2 million was approved over eight years, with $11 million a renewal.

“The $11 million is to support current programs and services for students, avoiding these being cut,” said Corey Lunn, Stillwater superintendent. “The additional $5.2 million is for supporting our new strategic plan action steps, called Bridge to Excellence, minimizing future budget cuts and adding building security and safety enhancements (more secure building entrances, quick response systems, etc.).”

Lunn noted that 63 percent voted yes, the largest ever for the district.

“I believe this was in response to a community-driven strategic plan, a detailed list of what the money would be used for and early decision making to provide ample time for discussion and conversation, all with a focus and effort to re-establish trust with our community,” he said.

However – and I mean no disrespect to all who worked hard and successfully to win approval for additional funds – I think it’s a mistake for the U.S. to be an outlier among nations in our reliance on local property taxes. The widely respected Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development reports that about 27 percent of education funding comes from local sources in the European and Asian countries it works with, while in the U.S. it’s 53 percent.

This year’s victories add to inequities in funding that 2013 Minnesota legislators were trying to discourage when they approved hundreds of millions of additional dollars to public education. For example, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association, here are varying additional amounts per pupil that some districts now have available to spend, based on approved operating levies: Braham, $275.32; Hopkins, $2,319.43; Lakeville, $540; Little Falls, $948.11; Mounds View, $1,024; Orono, $1,861.71; Osseo, $1,989.29; Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, $1,485.95; and Stillwater, $1,536.47. Greg Abbott, Minnesota School Boards Association communications director, pointed out that these figures do not necessarily reflect all previously approved levies.

Trying to equalize opportunities, Minnesota’s 2013 Legislature approved, for example, more than $100 million to pay for all-day kindergarten in every district and charter public schools. Legislators did not want this research-based program potentially dependent on whether local taxpayers approved funding for it.

Resolving these dilemmas is the subject for another day. Many Minnesotans said “yes” to more money and better facilities for public schools. That’s a strong affirmation, especially in troubled times.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, principal and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at [email protected]