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Local communities' support of schools

December 31, 2007

by Jenni Sebora

This past November many school districts across the state of Minnesota, including many local districts, asked their communities to support an operating levy or, in some cases, a building bond.

In fact, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association’s web site, www.mnmsba.org, this year saw the second highest number of school districts ever that went out for an operating levy referendum this fall.

The MSBA’s referendum survey of 341 districts across the state showed 99 districts considering a ballot request this year, which is the highest number of districts since 2001 when 188 districts went out for a referendum.

An additional 40 districts tried for bond referendums or capital project levies this year.

The results showed 67.6 percent of districts passing at least one question, with 61 districts passing all questions, six districts with mixed results, and 32 districts failing all questions.

Regarding the bond referendums and capital project requests, 50 percent passed at least one question, with 12 districts passing all questions; two districts having mixed results, and 14 districts failing all questions.

An operating levy is different than a bond referendum. An operating levy is basically what it says: it is a locally approved levy – tax – that district residents authorize to help support the ongoing costs of operating their own school district and to help support student learning.

A building bond is such – to support the buildings.

In our area, operating levy results showed: Buffalo-Montrose-Hanover failing all three questions; Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted failing both questions; and McLeod West failing its one question.

Dassel-Cokato, Delano, Glencoe-Silver Lake and Waconia all passed their single-question operating levy votes.

Why are districts asking for these operating levies? Again, according to the aforementioned web site, many districts know that a one percent state increase for schools in FY08 won’t go far with inflation, so they are asking (or did ask) and must rely more on their local citizens for help to avoid budget cuts. And in some districts, budget cuts have already occurred.

As an educator myself, a parent, a voting constituent, and a reporter who has covered a local school board for a few years, I have kept informed about school funding.

I have heard our state legislators talk about school funding and how school districts will be forced to rely on their own communities, their local citizens to financially help support the operation of their own school districts.

And I will also tell you that it is not without much discussion at school board meetings that school districts decide to ask their local taxpayers for financial help in the form of operating levies.

In the case of one local district’s failed operating levy vote, there would have been virtually no tax increase if it had passed, so why did the levy election fail?

I believe there are mixed reasons why people vote against such elections, including not wanting their taxes to increase. For some people, especially those with fixed incomes, an increase in taxes causes a great financial burden.

I don’t think any of us want our taxes to increase, but if we want services, we must pay taxes. Taxes for schools are the only taxes we can vote on. We don’t get to vote on how much we pay for income tax, how much Medicare is taken out, etc.

Possibly some people vote “no” on operating levy elections, because they can. It is the one tax they can say “no” to (or “yes”).

And sometimes possibly for some people, the vote is more personal than that – they don’t like a school board member or a school administrator or they may feel the board is deceitful or they just don’t agree with a certain school board member, etc.

But we must also remember that school board members are certainly local taxpayers too, or they couldn’t be on the school board. And being on a school board is a lot of hard work with the rewards certainly not being financial.

I urge district residents to attend their school district’s school board meetings – and more than just one. I believe if people have more knowledge of the inner-workings of their districts, they would be less negative. I have attended many school board meetings, and it is amazing the plethora of information school board members must be on top of.

Not only do they have to attend school board meetings, but there are also many subcommittees as part of being on a school board that they must serve on – negotiations, community education, health and wellness, budget, school policy, and the list goes on.

Many board members serving on these various committees must meet before they go to work in the morning or when they get home from work.

We may not agree with our all of our school board members’ views, etc., but unless you have attended meetings, a fair judgment cannot be made.

I have also heard comments that the money raised just goes to the teachers anyway. While it is true, that 70-80 percent of a school’s budget goes to staff salaries, we wouldn’t have a school without the staff. When a staff member is cut, so are learning opportunities for students.

Many child-related professionals say that teachers have awesome responsibilities, but they are greatly underpaid.

Teachers have increased pressures and responsibilities; it’s no wonder there are fewer young people entering the profession.

Teachers are certainly not in it for the money (although they have to earn a living, too.). This is a whole other subject, which I won’t expound upon anymore in this article.

Who loses when needed operating levies fail? It is the students.

I urge all of you to know what is going on in your schools. Attend school board meetings. Be informed by getting informed yourself. Know that operating levies are about the students.