Congratulations and concerns about school referendum victories / Joe Nathan’s Column

Published on HometownSource .com , ECM Publishers, By Joe Nathan on November 13, 2013 at 1:46 pm


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.

Joe Nathan

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.

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.

These differences help explain why, for example, the 2013 Minnesota Legislature voted 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 it.

Les Fujitake, Bloomington superintendent, wrote via email: “Bloomington voters graciously supported the capital projects levy that will fund $6 million a year (for 10 years) for safety and security measures to better prepare, protect and respond to future school emergencies, and for educational technology to transform learning, and to engage and empower personalized learning experiences for all students. We are truly honored by the trust and continued support of our school district by a community that believes in strong schools focused on academic achievement for all children.”

John Schultz, Hopkins superintendent, explained: “The voters graciously passed two questions. The first question for $3.1 million/year for 10 years will be used for the general operations of the district and maintaining the programs offered in its classrooms. The second question is a capital projects levy for $1.75 million/year that will be used to continue our improvements to our security and complete kitchen improvements. These dollars will also support technology and curriculum. Hopkins staff is humbled by the support of the communities that make up the Hopkins Public Schools and are excited to maintain the excellence this community expects for every school, every student, every day.”

Mounds View Superintendent Dan Hoverman wrote: “Our renewal raised $11.5 million annually. The focus of the renewal campaign was that the board wants to keep class sizes at the current levels and maintain our current programs. I think it passed because it was a straight renewal and didn’t involve a tax increase and because the community agreed with the idea of maintaining class sizes and preserving programs.”

Greg Winter, Braham superintendent, wrote via email: “The levy will continue to raise approximately $577,000. The money will continue to go toward updating and maintaining our facility, additional programming and keeping class sizes low.”

Asked why he thinks voters approved the district’s request, Winter responded: “I think it was approved because the district has done exactly what they said they would, when it was originally passed. 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: “The bond referendum is for $10 million. It will fund projects around safety, security, repairs and maintenance for district buildings and grounds. 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.”

Asked why he thought voters agreed to pay more, Queener responded, “Our goal was to reach all voters so they were informed about the need for the projects, share details about the projects and to be open, transparent about impacts to taxes for payable 2014. Absent a scientific survey, providing reasons for its passage is speculation at this point. 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.”

Stephen Jones, Little Falls superintendent, wrote via email: “The referendum was for $948.11 per pupil unit for 10 years, which raises approximately $2.5 million per year for the Little Falls Community School District. It will be used for the continuation of current programming as well as expansion of curricular and vocational offerings within the district.”

Asked why he thought the voters gave their approval, Jones wrote: “An operating referendum can be viewed as a barometer of the district stakeholders’ trust and confidence in the school district. In the Little Falls Community School District right now, there appears to be a greater unity and understanding of educational expectations between the community and school district. The relationship among students, parents, staff, and community members is positive and supportive … and I believe the results of the operating referendum election do, in fact, reflect that.”

Corey Lunn, Stillwater superintendent, wrote via email: “$16.2 million was approved over eight years. $11 million is a renewal, leaving $5.2 million as the net increase. The $11 million is to support current programs and services for students, avoiding these being cut. 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 our 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. In response accountability measures will be put into place to share how these dollars are being used. More hard work is just beginning as our transparency and trust building continues!”

Resolving equity funding is the subject for another day. All over, 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, please comment below.