Wary voters continue to reject school referendums with more on the ballot May 11

During the pandemic last year, Minnesota schools racked up quite a losing streak at the polls, a trend that appears to be continuing so far in 2021. It was the worst outcome in recent memory for school districts seeking voter approval on operating levies, referendum and bonding questions, according to MinnPost’s scorecard.

Across the state, only 17 of 33 operating levies passed. That count includes all 13 renewals (which generally pass, since they don’t impact taxes) and just four operating levy increases. 

As far as operating levies go, it’s a notably low number of approvals — tied for a low of 17 approvals back in 1996 says Greg Abbott, communications director for the Minnesota School Boards Association. This count also marks the lowest passage rate — at just 51.5 percent — since 2008.

Only one of the five bond requests passed this fall [2020]. And only half of the 10 capital project levies — which were mostly earmarked for technology expenses — passed. “Districts were really relying on to get them the laptops and the one-to-one ratios for students when they have to move to distance learning,” Abbott said. 

The public remains wary, based on the results of a limited number of school referendums held this year. To date eight districts around the state have gone before taxpayers with a total of 13 referendum questions for funding ranging from $1 million to $64 million. Voters have turned down seven ballot questions, while approving six. Two of the losing districts went before taxpayers again this year after falling short in 2020.

When the ballots were tallied in Staples Motley last month, the Brainerd Dispatch found the district’s $64 million renovation plan didn’t come close to making it.

Unofficial vote totals Tuesday night stood at 910 voters in favor and 1,555 opposed.

“While we are disappointed in the result of this election, we respect the decision made by voters and thank everyone who took this opportunity to make their voice heard,” Superintendent Shane Tappe stated in a news release. “Our district will continue to provide our students with a high quality education, and we will continue to explore other ways to improve our facilities.”

The results were even more lopsided (81 percent to 19 percent) against the Bird Island-Olivia-Lake Lillian District (BOLD) campaign to build a new school and other facilities. Tensions flared in a recent public meeting to follow up on the district’s needs in which 60 or so residents walked out, according to the West Central Tribune.

The comments ranged from concerns about the condition of the current facilities to the tax impact of building new facilities. “Taxes going tooooo high,” stated one note. Concerns about public trust and the divisions in the district were apparent as well in the comments.

There was also an encouragement to board members to develop a plan to move forward: “Provide a new or remodeled building to give great education to students at an affordable price,” said Susie Peterson, who signed her comment.

The next round of school referendums comes on May 11 with ten districts putting twelve ballot proposals before residents. The results may provide more clarity on whether the current rejection rate is an anomaly or the new normal that school districts will need to address.