School districts face increasingly skeptical voters on Nov. 2

Next Tuesday, dozens of school districts across the state will try to overcome a losing streak that’s led increasing skeptical local voters to reject nearly two-thirds of referendum and other school funding questions on the ballot thus far in 2021. This follows the worst year on record for Minnesota schools on funding questions in nearly a quarter of a century, when barely half of operating levies on the ballot passed, along with similarly poor results on bond and capitol projects last fall.

Yet it’s not clear how much some school districts have learned from their own recent history. Take voters in Byron, who’ve already rejected a referendum to fund school improvements twice in the last year. But school officials refuse to take no for an answer, actually jacking up the total cost before voters by $3 million over the proposal they last turned down in May, according to the Post Bulletin.

Voters will head to the ballot in November, six months after the most recent failed referendum in May. The first attempt was a year before that, in May 2020.

“Even though the last two didn’t pass, it doesn’t diminish the needs that we still have,” said Superintendent Mike Neubeck. “The further out we go, the harder it’s going to be to repair, and the tougher it’s going to be on our students. So, we really felt we needed to do it now.”

Perhaps no school district has been more vocal than Shakopee in issuing doom and gloom warnings on the impact on students if their parents fail to pass an $11 million operating levy on the ballot. Southwest News Media says the district has held numerous forums and encouraged early voting to get it over the top.

The school district predicts that if both questions fail, it would create over $5 million in budget cuts prior to the 2023-24 school year, with several more cuts every two to three years. This in turn would lead to increased class sizes and cutting about 40 full-time employees, according to the district’s operating levy facts handout.

Beyond the classroom, further budget cuts and eliminations of athletics, the arts and other student organizations would be enacted, as well as an increase in student walking distances for elementary and middle school students, according to the district.

Superintendent Dr. Mike Redmond said having the operating levy fail gives the district no choice but to make drastic cuts.

Evidently, teachers are also encouraged to deliver the sales pitch in Shakopee.

“If you really truly trust us with your child’s education and your child’s best interests in mind, believe me when I say that this can offer a chance to give every kid the education they deserve,” [Shakopee High School teacher Wade] Laughlin said. “This is an absolute necessity.”

An APG/EMC editorial points out that off-year school elections usually result in a low turnout. But involvement shoots up exponentially with spending issues on the ballot.

Historical data to support strong voter turnout is not encouraging. Over the past two odd-number school district election cycles, the MSBA [Minnesota School Boards Association] says voter turnout for school board elections averaged 17-19%. When levies or bonds are on the ballot, the turnout grows to 60% on average. In even-numbered years when all but 29 of the state’s 332 school districts have board elections, turnout can be as high as 85%, MSBA says.

The fact that more school board positions are before voters this year could also drive up turnout. Parental engagement has only intensified since the last round of referendums largely failed in May and August.

Controversial mask mandates for students, lingering resentment over a lost academic year due to distance learning and the issue of Critical Race Theory have rocked many districts, motivating more parents to challenge the status quo. It all adds up to an election day that’s as unpredictable as many school board meetings this year.

Tuesday, Nov. 2, is an important day for many communities as voters fill school board seats and decide revenue needs for years to come. Don’t let the odd-number decline in voter participation be a continued trend. Get to know your candidates, understand the financial questions and then vote.