Few school districts are asking residents for more funding this November, fearing rejection from voters concerned with inflation and worried their requests will be drowned out by midterm campaigns.
At least 21 school districts will ask voters to raise or maintain school operating levies this fall, the fewest since 1980, when the Minnesota School Boards Association began tracking the data.
But a lack of levy requests doesn’t mean schools are in good fiscal health. Minnesota schools continue to confront some of the most uncertain times in recent history.
The state’s public school enrollment is in decline — a cause for concern since state funding is directly tied to the number of students enrolled. Fall enrollment for the 2020-21 school year declined more than 2% compared to the prior year. Last school year saw another milder decline of less than 1%.
The rate of inflation, up 8.3% from August of last year, has left schools dealing with tighter budgets as available funds haven’t kept up with rising costs.
“It costs more to transport students. It costs more for electricity,” said Greg Abbott, communications director for the Minnesota School Boards Association. “The meals that used to be free under COVID aren’t free anymore, [and] food costs are going up.”
While elementary and secondary education in Minnesota is on track to receive over $2 billion in federal COVID-19 relief aid, many are concerned about the potential financial cliff schools will encounter once the one-time money is spent.
Yet, schools can be hesitant to rely on voters to fix financial troubles: “Nobody wants to [ask voters]” Abbott said. “It’s just when you have student needs, sometimes you have to.”
Abbott said some schools thought there was the potential this year to secure funding elsewhere. Operating budgets are funded with local, state and federal funds, plus voter-approved local tax levies.
There was hope — in the form of a $9 billion surplus — that the state might provide some fiscal security, according to several regional education leaders.
“There are a lot of school districts who saw the $9 billion surplus in the state budget, and really thought the Legislature would get their act together and give some funding for schools.” Abbott said.
Minneapolis teachers took to the State Capitol during a March strike to call on lawmakers to dedicate a portion of the surplus to schools.
In late April, the DFL-controlled Minnesota House passed a bill to give $3 billion over a three-year period to education, targeted at supporting mental health services, English language instruction and special education services.
The bill didn’t progress far in the Republican-controlled Senate. Republican state senators also proposed a bill to allocate $30 million — 1% of the House proposal — to boost reading proficiency.
Barring a special session, education won’t be getting more state funding this year. Many school districts already have operating levies, as they typically last for 10 years, according to Abbott, and other districts could be waiting to see if anything happens in the next legislative session that would allow them to postpone going to voters.
While many are frustrated by state education funding, passing levies presents a different set of obstacles, especially during a busy election season like this one.
Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan Schools, said voters can be disinclined to vote for tax increases, especially with high inflation.
“If the voter shows up to vote and hasn’t heard much about the school referendum,” Croonquist said. “It’s tougher for them to vote yes, to raise their property taxes because they haven’t heard the case for why the district is making that request.”
And the levy requests could come amid other significant increases in property taxes.
That means success relies on school leaders making a strong pitch to voters. However, school districts will be competing for voters’ attention with higher-profile campaigns for the governorship, Legislature and Congress.
“The reality is a lot of times the operating referendums are needed to protect programs and to avoid cuts and avoid layoffs,” Croonquist said. “That’s what you have to educate your community [on] and make sure they understand.”
School districts officials in places such as South St. Paul Public Schools hope voters will approve an increase in taxes to help them avoid a “devastating financial cliff,” according to the school district’s website.
South St. Paul Public Schools will ask voters to approve two levies that would be in effect for the next decade: one at $1,692 per student, which is a $900 per student increase on their current levy, and another at $250 per student. If voters approve both levies, taxes would increase approximately $37 a month for a $275,000 home, the average home value in South St. Paul.
The school district says without the larger levy, it will need to make “broader and deeper cuts to staffing and academic programs.” If voters approve both levies, the district will invest in mental health support and career readiness programs.
There’s no guarantee that schools will secure the funding, even with a compelling case and clear communication. Oftentimes, schools may need to return to voters multiple times with plan adjustments before securing an approval.
“[Levy requests] are always a challenge to pass. We’ve never had a year where all of them passed or all of them failed,” Croonquist said. “There’s just always a mix.”
There are several school districts that will pursue other levy requests in November: Nine districts will ask for capital project levies, which are mostly for technology costs, and eight districts will seek building bond approvals.
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