New law lets schools bypass voters to renew expiring tax levies

Talk about voter suppression. The whole idea behind holding an operating levy referendum is to leave the decision up to local taxpayers on whether to raise their property taxes to supplement the funding for schools provided by the state. But a new law passed by the DFL-controlled state legislature takes the say out of the hands of voters, empowering school boards to renew operating levies set to expire, regardless of what taxpayers think.

The Minnesota School Boards Association applauded the power grab, telling the Star Tribune it’s been a long time coming.

School boards in Minnesota may now renew property tax levies that pay for things like classroom materials and career and technical programs, a responsibility that until now rested with voters who elected those officials…

“This has been a membership-supported position for a number of years,” said Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association (MSBA).

The move effectively doubles the length of typical operating levies from ten to twenty years without the nuisance of seeking taxpayer approval. But not all school board members endorse the new normal of circumventing voters and the accountability they provide.

But critics of the new law say it dilutes voters’ say in how their tax money is spent when levies come up for renewal. Osseo School Board Member Tanya Simons argues that referendums represent “important oversight for our constituents.”

“It gives them the power to tell us whether they agree with how we’re using taxpayer money,” she said.

Simons told her peers on the Osseo School Board she couldn’t support lobbying in favor of the law back in December. Now that it’s passed, Simons said she’d likely vote against a levy renewal if it came up for a vote in her district.

“It would be a little self-serving to say we know how the majority of our constituents would want us to vote,” she said.

Supporters point out that the usurping of voters’ say over operating levies can only occur once and must be for the same amount of funding and duration as the referendum already on the books. But school districts with operating levies set to expire next year aren’t wasting any time cashing in on the newfound powers that come at the expense of their constituents.

More than a dozen districts have levies expiring next July, which means their school boards must hold a vote by Wednesday or approach voters with the question on the ballot later this year. Four of those districts — Lakeville, New Prague, Hastings and Eastern Carver County — are in the seven-county metro area.

All of those districts have scheduled board meetings to consider renewing their property tax levies.

Of course, there’s nothing preventing school boards from continuing to put operating levies before voters for approval anyway. But the rush for districts to act by Wednesday before it’s too late for this year proves the last thing administrators and school board members want to do is leave the decision up to voters.