The third attempt in as many years by the Walker-Hackensack-Akeley School District at passing an operating levy in the Walker-Hackensack-Akeley School District failed again Tuesday.
There were 1,615 yes votes, or 44 percent, and 2,063 no votes, or 56 percent, cast in Tuesday's operating levy referendum.
The district asked taxpayers to support a $500 per pupil operating levy referendum during Tuesday's general election to provide more financial stability, bring back programs and reduce class sizes due to cuts and to slowly rebuild the district's unreserved fund balance.
During the last three years, the district has made $2.4 million in budget cuts, or about 25 percent of the district's annual $8 million budget.
The district was unsuccessful in passing similar referendums in 2007 and 2008.
Board chair Dave Holk said Wednesday that a decision on what the district's next step will be won't likely be made until next year when three new board members are sworn in.
"Absolutely disappointed, I think that sums it up," Holk said of his reaction to the failed levy. "I'm disappointed for the kids."
Statewide, The Associated Press reported about half the 76 Minnesota school districts that went to their voters on Tuesday for permission to raise their property taxes, while others wondered how they could have gotten just a few more votes.
It was the largest number of school districts going to the voters since 2007, when 101 districts put levies before their voters. Driving the districts was a widespread fear that the state's projected $6 billion budget deficit will mean flat or reduced funding for schools.
Greg Abbott, spokesman for the Minnesota School Boards Association, said the 55 percent win rate was down from last year's 72 percent rate. But it was up from the 42 percent rate in 2006, which was the last time levy requests competed with congressional races for voters' attention.
Districts usually try to avoid competing against high-profile political campaigns, but this year districts felt "they really had no choice," Abbott said. "I don't think there's anyone in the state that is expecting any kind of increase to education."
Schools have been cutting budgets and closing schools in recent years and many have depleted their reserves. Then lawmakers shifted $1.4 billion in education funding away from schools to fill a hole in the current budget.
Abbott said districts that sought to renew a levy - meaning taxpayers wouldn't see a tax increase - tended to do better than districts that asked voters to raise taxes. And even so, Abbott said he had never seen so many close losses in levy elections.
In Wheaton, the school levy lost by three votes, 564 to 561, according to unofficial results on the secretary of state's website. The LeSuer-Henderson levy lost by 24 votes, 1,550 to 1,526. In Byron, it lost by 62 votes, 1,578 to 1,516.
Byron Superintendent Wendy S. Shannon said, "I truly believe we did everything we could. We worked extremely hard, collectively, for the past four months. I'm very, very disappointed."
She said the loss will mean class sizes will keep increasing - they were up 6.5 percent in the past two years already. The district lost its levy campaign last year by 363 votes and Shannon said the school board will meet Monday and may decide to go to voters a third time.
Sleepy Eye voters turned back an ambitious new school levy 1,526 to 642. The district was one of 35 in the state without a levy and it sought to raise $1,567 per pupil, the legal limit.
Superintendent John Cselovszki called the loss a "crushing defeat" that would mean more cuts for a district that has already trimmed $750,000, or 12 percent of its budget, over the past two years.
He said he worried more cuts could, in the long term, reduce services to the point that parents move their children to wealthier schools. "I don't want to destroy the good quality education that our students receive here," he said.
He plans to go back to voters with a smaller levy. "I can't just give up," Cselovszki said.
The levy fared better in Winona, where the voters renewed the district's request 7,469 to 5,090. The levy raises about $6 million a year, or 23 percent of the district's revenue, and was set to expire in 2012.
The district's literature stressed the renewal wouldn't raise anyone's taxes.
"I think that absolutely helped," Superintendent Scott M. Hannon said. "We made that one of our main things: 'We don't want to dig into your pockets any deeper."'
The levy will now run through 2017, Hannon said, providing a cushion while the district manages declining enrollment, the end of federal stimulus funds and the expected flat or reduced funding from the state.
"It's an amount we needed to give us some breathing room," he said.
JODIE TWEED may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5858.
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