MINNEAPOLIS — The phone banks have been humming for three weeks straight in the headquarters of the teachers’ union for Minnesota’s largest school district, as Anoka-Hennepin teachers and their allies plead with voters to renew an operating levy worth $48 million a year.
“If this levy were to fail, I don’t know what our district would look like,” said Julie Blaha, president of the local chapter of Education Minnesota. One in five teachers would be let go, she said. Class sizes would top 40. Elementary art and music classes could be eliminated, she said.
Those are the sort of dire warnings heard throughout Minnesota as a third of the state’s school districts ask voters on Tuesday to put aside their worries about the sputtering economy and pony up money they need to preserve electives, hold the line on class sizes and replace aging buses, among other things.
The Minnesota School Boards Association reports 113 districts are asking for authority to tap property taxes for everyday expenses — about half seeking renewal of current levies. Twenty districts want to raise money for capital spending, including building repairs. Together, it’s the most requests since 2001.
Although Anoka-Hennepin has been hit hard by the recession and home foreclosures, Blaha said she hasn’t seen a strong anti-tax feeling among the voters this fall. That may be because the district isn’t asking for luxuries, she said: “This is really very basic, everyday, practical, nitty-gritty stuff.”
Anoka-Hennepin voters will get three questions on Tuesday. They can renew the existing $48 million levy, approve another $3 million a year to upgrade the district’s technology and, finally, give the school board authority to levy another $12 million to cover future shortfalls in state school funding.
School officials say they are turning to local taxpayers because their balance sheets are in tatters after years of lagging state funding and an accounting shift during the past legislative session that pushed 40 percent of state school aid payments into the next fiscal year.
The financial problems aren’t unique to Minnesota. Researchers at the nonpartisan Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reported earlier this month that state spending on education has fallen below 2008 levels in at least 30 states, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota and Illinois.
In those years, states have seen tax revenues dry up in the recession and have also cut back on human services, health care, higher education and other areas. The center found the exceptions were states with oil and gas money, including North Dakota, or where lawmakers have made education a priority, including Iowa.
In Minnesota, research from the Department of Education found that state per-pupil funding increased from 2003 to 2011, but at a rate well below inflation. At the same time, school districts became more reliant on local property taxes through voter-approved levies. Now, 90 percent of school districts have a local levy.
The levy campaigns have had their critics. Rep. Patrick Garofalo, R-Farmington, the chairman of the House Education Finance Committee, said voters should question districts that seek to raise, rather than renew, levies.
He said the Legislature increased spending on K-12 education by $650 million during the past session, including a $100 increase in per pupil spending over two years and new money for suburban and rural districts. “Now just a few months later, many districts are back asking for more,” Garofalo said.
Garofalo said this week that school districts were trying to exploit the low turnouts of odd-year elections, when they are more likely to pass. He vowed to introduce a bill requiring them to be held in even-numbered years.
Not even all local school board members believe the grim predictions. Duluth school board member Art Johnston has been writing and speaking against his own district’s three-part levy request. Johnston claims the district is twisting the numbers to make itself appear more needy.
“We can’t keep yelling, ‘Wolf!’ That’s what keeps happening,” Johnston said. “I don’t want to lose the support of the community.”
Katie Kaufman, a spokeswoman for the Duluth schools, said the district was “absolutely” sure its public statements about the levy were accurate, including reports of years of cost cutting and a projected budget deficit of more than $4 million next year if none of the three levy questions pass.
In western Minnesota, the superintendent of the small school district of Battle Lake is hoping his community will approve the first operating levy since 1997. It would raise $527,000 and cost the average homeowner $252 a year, said Superintendent Jeff Drake.
He said the district has been making ends meet by tapping its savings account for three years. Now it’s going to the voters. “We are not trying to do this to bring extra programs to the district,” Drake said. “We’re trying to keep offering what we are.”
It’s been a tough sell in parts of the district where people have retired to lakeshore homes, he said. That combination of valuable property and fixed incomes means “any type of cash increase is more of a sensitive issue for those folks,” he said.