Column: Abolish school levy referendums in Minnesota

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 22, 2007

Frank Moe, Guest Column

There was a time when school operating levy referendums paid for extras.

Things like new computers, shorter bus routes for kids or an extra elective.

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They were built into the school financing system to allow school officials to go before voters to ask them to pay for educational extras that didn&8217;t necessarily fall under the state&8217;s constitutional responsibility to provide &8220;a fair and uniform system of public education&8221; for every child in Minnesota.

Those days are long gone. It&8217;s time for the state of Minnesota to ban levy referendums all together and return to a system that provides every child in Minnesota with a quality education, regardless of where they live. Instead of a tool for school districts to pay for &8220;extras,&8221; levy referendums have become a backdoor way for the state to avoid its responsibility when it comes to education funding.

Of the 99 school districts around the state that went before voters this month to ask for school levy dollars, in nearly every case, school officials weren&8217;t asking property owners to pay for luxuries, but necessities. The money from the referendums were slated to pay for algebra and science teachers, classroom textbooks, diesel fuel for school buses or heating oil for furnaces. School administrators told voters they would use the money to keep class sizes reasonable, particularly in lower grades, and improve the quality of education.

Of those 99 operating levies, 67 passed. Voters in 32 districts &8212; like Bemidji where I live &8212; rejected them.

Because property taxes make up an average of 26 percent of school budgets, a defeated operating levy can have a dramatic impact on the quality of education quality in that district. More often than not, when a levy goes down, school officials are forced to lay off teachers, cut programs and curriculum and increase class sizes.

I volunteered enough on the 2003 referendum in Bemidji to know how much work it is to actually pass one.

Parents and teachers were forced to spend so much time away from their own children, hoping that their efforts would result in enough funding for their children&8217;s school.

Sometimes, hard work isn&8217;t enough. I don&8217;t believe communities say no to levies because they don&8217;t value education or because they don&8217;t want their kids to succeed or even because people in the area don&8217;t think a levy is necessary. In the vast majority of cases, levies go down because voters in the district can&8217;t afford them.

In our area &045;&8212;where the average family income barely cracks $30,000 and people work a couple of jobs to get even that, a $300 or $400 levy request is a big deal. That&8217;s particularly true when gas is over $3.00 a gallon, health care costs continue to rise and property taxes have already increased $2 billion in Minnesota over the past six years.

The state of Minnesota needs to step up and I&8217;m in the process of introducing legislation that would abolish operating levy referendums. I realize there may be opposition to this in some property-rich districts, but the inability to pass levies in too many districts poses a real threat to the quality of education in our state.

Levy referendums have also become a backdoor way for the state to avoid its responsibility when it comes to education funding, particularly this decade. Just look at the state education-funding package in 2005. Although the legislation increased basic per pupil funding by 8 percent over two years, the bulk of those increases were paid for with property tax hikes.

In fact, since the Pawlenty Administration took office, state per-pupil funding has dropped between $989 and $542, depending on the district. In 2003, the state paid 75 percent of school costs and property taxpayers 19 percent. In 2007, the state share is 68 percent, the property tax portion 26 percent.

Thirty-six years ago, Minnesota made national news by reforming the way we pay for our schools. Called the Minnesota Miracle, the system took the bulk of responsibility for paying for our kids&8217; education off of property taxes and onto the state tax rolls. It took 10 years of hard work to get the legislation passed, and like now, rising public discontent with soaring property taxes provided the fertile ground for the effort.

The hard work was worth it. Over the next 25 years, Minnesota built a statewide school system that was the envy of the nation and our kids have been consistently ranked in the top 5 of almost every measure of school performance.

We need that kind of bold action again. Continuing to shift the burden of paying for our kids&8217; education onto property taxes is a recipe for disaster. It creates a school system of haves and have-nots and forces Minnesotans to make a choice that many of them can&8217;t honestly afford to make &8212; to raise their own property taxes.

You shouldn&8217;t have to make that choice.

The State of Minnesota needs to live up to its responsibility to provide a &8220;a fair and uniform system of public education&8221;.

Let&8217;s abolish school levy referendums once and for all.

State Rep. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, is the assistant majority leader for the Minnesota House of Representatives.