DFL Bill Disenfranchises Voters on Expiring School Referendums

When it comes to voting on school district referendums, the deck is already largely stacked against local taxpayers. “Vote Yes” committees operate increasingly sophisticated and expensive campaigns with insider help.

While districts cannot directly ask voters for support, schools lay the groundwork with informational newsletters and emails to parents.  School board members and district staff are free to campaign on their personal time, while teachers unions promote passage of ballot questions, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association website.

No wonder school districts won 69 percent of the 90 bond and capital project levy referendum ballot questions up in 2018, according to MSBA.

But now DFL lawmakers want to eliminate one of the few protections in place for local taxpayers by letting school boards automatically renew expiring referendums, instead of going back to the voters. Session Daily reports that Rep. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley would effectively authorize school boards to disenfranchise voters in districts statewide with passage of HF116.

Under current law, operating referendums are valid for up to 10 years, at which point a school board must seek voter approval to renew the referendum. Freiberg explained that this bill would allow districts similar authority over ongoing levies as city council and county boards.

To qualify for extension, the renewed referendum would need to be identical to the expiring one. Additionally, school boards would be required to hold a meeting prior to the renewal open to public testimony, and then adopt a written resolution authorizing it.

But Freiberg and his allies appear to have more educating to do with several constituencies that oppose his power grab on behalf of education insiders and special interest groups.

Jim Bartholomew, education policy director of Minnesota Business Partnership, opposes the proposed legislation, saying it would stifle conversation between districts and citizens, and ultimately weaken their voices. This was a sentiment shared by in a letter from the Minnesota Farm Bureau and several Republican committee members.

Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen (R-Glencoe), who served on the Glencoe-Silver Lake School Board for 16 years, said referendums provide an opportunity for school districts to reassess their programs and spending, and become more efficient.

“By having these votes I think it puts pressure on the system to get rid of some of the things that are inefficient and to operate more effectively,” he said.

Yet somewhere along the line educators and their enablers have come to view referendum dollars as a permanent source of revenue, rather than temporary funding approved by taxpayers for a specific purpose. If the measure passes, it will turn out to be another expensive lesson for local taxpayers.