Schools Still Push Parents to Pass Dozens of Referenda Despite Covid Downturn

It takes a catastrophe like the Great Recession and Gov. Tim Walz’s statewide shutdown and continuing restrictions to force most local governments to even consider holding the line on property taxes. Now many have done just that as even big government enclaves like St. Paul and Duluth recognize the devastating impact on their constituents’ pocketbooks and employment prospects.

But leave it to K-12 educators to plow ahead anyway with multi-million dollar capital project levies, bond referenda and operating levy questions on November 3. All this in the midst of a pandemic that’s forced parents to bear much of the teaching load for schools in many ways.

Forty-six Minnesota school districts will be pressing local taxpayers to approve paying even higher school taxes on the ballot, despite a lack of clarity on when and how schools will return to normal operations again.

In fact, the Mankato Free Press found some districts go so far as to use Covid as a means to justify their price hike.

[Cleveland Public] School leaders say the funds are needed to help with extra pandemic-related expenses for which the district currently is drawing down its reserve fund. The district could decide not to collect any or a portion of the additional local dollars if it receives reimbursement for pandemic expenses from the government, Supt. Brian Philips said in a letter to community members.

If approved, the referendum would increase taxes on a $150,000 home by $48 to $213 a year, according to district calculations.

Another Southern Minnesota district, New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva schools, got lucky with a referendum last year. Surprise! They’re back for another increase now.

District leaders say the additional dollars are needed because state funding isn’t keeping up with inflation and the government has placed additional unfunded mandates on schools. The district is operating with a budget deficit even after making $160,000 in spending cuts.

“Seeking additional revenue from voters is the only option available for our school district if we want to maintain our current programming and services,” School Board Chair Rick Schultz said in a statement.

If the referendum is approved, taxes on a home valued at $125,000 would increase by $135 a year, according to district estimates.

In pre-Covid 2019, 63 school districts put ballot questions before voters, who rejected about one-third of the proposals. After all parents have been through since then, it wouldn’t be surprising to see that ratio reversed on November 3.