$30 million school referendum goes down in flames with just 12 percent of vote

None of the three Minnesota school districts that sought residents’ approval for bonding referendums this week came close to succeeding. But the losses in the Annandale (57-43%) and Glenville-Emmons (55-45%) school districts look like squeakers in comparison to the meltdown that occurred in Houston.

Nearly nine out of ten voters (88%) in the southeastern Minnesota community voted down a $30 million bonding proposal aimed at upgrading maintenance, security and safety at the district’s schools. School officials tried to make the case for passage to WXOW-TV.

“If you come down to the Elementary School you enter and you either go up or down and you have access to the whole building,” Houston Public Schools Superintendent Mary Morem said. “The office is on the second floor, which then becomes interesting to try and get there and sometimes people don’t go and check in like they’re supposed to.”

Yet in the weeks leading up to the special August election, questions were raised about the need, impact on taxpayers and timing of the measure in the dog days of summer. Retired college biology professor Ray Farber evidently spoke for many in a July letter to the editor of the Post Bulletin in even questioning the scope of a referendum in a district that serves more students online than in the classroom .

The referendum has had little publicity. What other elections are held in an odd year during the summer when many people are vacationing and paying little attention to news?

This referendum received Minnesota Department of Education approval based on a student population of over 2000, when about 80% of those students attend Virtual Academy, an online school, and do not attend classes on site.

Add to this the fact that K-12 numbers are declining almost everywhere.

In fact, two school board members voted against this referendum.

The financial burden the referendum would place on taxpayers of the community of 1,000 residents also stood out. If both questions on the ballot had passed, taxes would have risen $200 a year on a $100,000 home, $658 annually on a $250,000 home and $5,385 on a $1,000,000 commercial property. Faber put it this way.

The tax impact of this referendum will be very significant. In my own case, the district’s estimator indicates an increase of $631 per year, a 56% increase over 2023 district property taxes. And these taxes currently represent 48% of my total property tax. This is no small matter and the public needs to be aware and to vote accordingly. Every voter that I am aware of has indicated opposition to this referendum.

In the end, there wasn’t quite 100 percent opposition but close enough to chasten the most ardent school administrator.

“Despite the results from this special election, we remain committed to providing the best possible education for our students, and to finding acceptable long-term solutions that benefit our students, staff, and community,” Houston Public Schools Superintendent Mary Morem said in a statement. “We will continue to engage with Houston residents to better serve our students and community.”  

Despite the latest results, numerous school funding referendums will be on the ballot this November across the state. The outcomes will determine whether the results this week were localized or the start of a trend.