Really expensive daycare. Its for the kids, right? Keep pumping taxpayer money into a failed system.

Minnesota schools asking voters for $1.8 billion
By Christopher Magan, St. Paul Pioneer Press on Nov 2, 2015 at 3:38 p.m.

Minnesota voters will decide more than 100 school levies Tuesday, and nearly all of them will address one of four concerns: school building improvements, security upgrades, classroom technology or operating revenue.

Forty districts across the state are putting 51 capital levies before voters to fund about $1.8 billion worth of projects ranging from school construction to iPad purchases, the Minnesota School Boards Association says. Earlier this year, voters approved 20 of 33 capital ballot questions for similar projects.

Altogether, it is a record year for capital levies, with 68 districts asking voters to approve 84 requests. If approved, the levies would provide revenue for districts to buy classroom supplies or fund construction projects.

State law allows districts to ask for new capital revenue throughout the year, but requests for operating money — used to pay salaries and benefits — is typically limited to the November election.

It’s also a big year for operating levies. Fifty-three Minnesota districts have asked or are asking voters to OK a total of 61 requests.

If approved, the levies would raise an average of $884 per pupil, about $260 more than what’s now being collected.

In the Twin Cities metro area alone, 10 districts have a total of 20 capital and operating levies on this week’s ballot.

Each year, districts receive a set amount of funding in state aid and local property taxes. Any additional revenue must be approved by local voters.

Playing catchup

The surge in levies comes after Minnesota lawmakers added about $1 billion in new school spending to the two biennial budgets. Some of that money went to specific programs, such as all-day kindergarten and assistance programs for struggling students.

Nonetheless, the per-pupil funding formula that schools use for general operations is expected to rise more than 9 percent from 2014 to 2016, state budget data shows. By 2016, each district will receive $5,813 in base funding for each student they educate.

Despite the recent funding increases, school advocates say the large number of levies before voters shows districts are still trying to make up for the stagnation of state funding during the Great Recession.

Adjusted for inflation, state education spending has seen peaks and valleys over the past two decades.

This year, the state is expected to spend about $10,000 per student, about what it did in 2000 and by no means a high point.

“For me, the overarching theme is, public education has been underfunded in relationship to the cost of living for the last 20 years,” said Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

Amoroso said that public schools are expected to do more than ever before and that many districts work hard to offer competitive wages and benefits to staff.

“We are a people-driven business,” he said.

Yet critics say school officials often are at least partially responsible for their districts’ growing fiscal needs. They argue that the leaders agree to contracts for teachers and staff that can outpace new state revenue and force districts to turn to local taxpayers.

“The concept of education inflation is both a district-based and district-influenced condition,” said Mark Haveman, executive director of the Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence, a taxpayer watchdog group. “Clearly, districts have at least some influence in their cost structure.”

New needs

Besides the debate over whether state education funding is keeping pace with inflationary costs, it’s clear that new educational programs and tools are driving many of the requests for new local taxes.

The Legislature’s decision to fund all-day kindergarten in 2013 set in motion a classroom space squeeze that many districts are still trying to address. And Gov. Mark Dayton’s latest push to provide universal preschool for 4-year-olds has exacerbated space concerns in many communities.

“Districts understand the importance of early learning,” said Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association.

But Schneidawind said districts need time and resources to find the space and teachers to accommodate more young learners.

“There’s nothing worse than an overcrowded classroom or an overcrowded school,” he said.

Besides space needs, several districts must address a backlog of building maintenance needs. Many others are trying to improve student access to computer technology and enhance school security.

“(Technology) is now a key cog in how instruction is delivered and as a resource for how children learn,” Amoroso said. “Anytime we have a tragedy, the question comes from parents: ‘Is my child safe in your school?’ ”

Past support

If history is a judge, school advocates might find Tuesday’s voters receptive to their requests to increase taxes.

In 2014, voters approved about 74 percent of the more than 100 levies on ballots across the state. In 2013, nearly 90 percent of the roughly 80 levy requests were OK’d, the best success rate since the Minnesota School Boards Association began keeping records in 1980.

There are no statewide races on the ballot Tuesday, so a low turnout is predicted. Only the most motivated voters are expected to head to the polls.

In 2014, when all the state’s executive offices, the Minnesota House, a U.S. Senate seat and all the state’s U.S. House seats were up for grabs, half of registered voters went to the polls, according to the Minnesota secretary of state’s office. In 2013, however, just 17 percent voted.

School leaders are taking nothing for granted. Schneidawind said a district’s success at the ballot box is almost always determined by how well officials communicate its needs.

“It’s all local; it really is,” he said. “That is why school boards and district staff take these seriously and make sure they are using these dollars wisely and efficiently.”

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