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Minnesota voters supported 82 percent of tax levies in November

ST. PAUL — Minnesota school districts continued to enjoy strong support from voters, who approved tax levies for operations and capital improvements this year at near-record rates.

Voters backed 82 percent — 50 of 61 operating levies — on the Nov. 7 ballot. That's shy of the record 90 percent approval for operating levies in 2015, but it's only the third time since 2000 that more than 80 percent of operating levies have been approved.

Capital levies to improve schools, add space and fund classroom technology also received strong support. District leaders can ask for capital funding throughout the year, and voters have backed 56 percent — 47 of 84 requests — in 2017.

Statewide, that translates into millions of dollars for school operations and more than $1.5 billion in school improvements. The operating levies had an average increase of $227 per pupil and were worth an average of $864 per student overall.

In Ramsey, Dakota and Washington counties, voters supported 15 of the 17 levies on the ballot; only Forest Lake voters said no. Levies were approved, many by comfortable margins, in Burnsville-Eagan-Savage, Hastings, Inver Grove Heights, Lakeville, Mounds View, Roseville, South St. Paul, South Washington County and White Bear Lake.

Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, said school leaders were cautiously optimistic ahead of Election Day.

"The school boards that run these elections were pleasantly surprised," ­Schneidawind said. "Minnesotans value and appreciate their public schools."

More money from Legislature, too

The local victories come after the Legislature pumped roughly $2 billion a year worth of new funding into the state education budget, which has grown to nearly $19 billion every two years. Despite the influx of new money, schools are receiving about the same per student as they did a decade ago, once numbers are adjusted for inflation.

A lot of the new money approved by state lawmakers is directed at specific programs including full-day kindergarten and early learning. Nearly every ­Minnesota 5-year-old now attends kindergarten all day, and state funding will help 22,500 students attend preschool this school year.

The growth of those programs has created a space crunch at schools and is an underlying reason for many of the recent capital levies.

In the metro area, 80 percent of capital levies this year have won approval from voters.

The results in Greater Minnesota have not been as favorable. Just a third of outstate capital levies were approved earlier this year, but a new tax credit for agricultural landowners that took effect in August is likely what helped double that approval rate in November.

Included in the tax bill signed by Gov. Mark Dayton in May, the provision gives farmers a 40 percent reduction in their tax bill for school infrastructure projects.

Rural school leaders had pushed for the tax credit for years, arguing owners of farmland shouldered too much of the cost of building and renovating schools.

Fred Nolan, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association, says the tax credit and a previous legislative decision to put more money into school upkeep has helped rural schools fund their most important infrastructure needs.

"I think the results of Nov. 7 will mean more ­interest in bond elections in the spring," Nolan said.

Problems remain

While education advocates have cheered schools' recent successes winning voter support, there is concern about growing funding inequities.

Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, says schools are increasingly reliant on locally approved levies for day-to-day school operations. That means districts that can't win over voters — or are reluctant to even try — can struggle to maintain staffing and programming.

"There used to be a perception that operating levies were for extras," Croonquist said. "More and more, people are understanding that is not the case."

Yet the cost of local school levies to homeowners varies widely depending on the mix of commercial and residential property in their community. Property owners in bedroom communities without a lot of businesses often have to pay more in school taxes than their neighboring districts that have more commercial real estate.

Those inconsistencies are why education advocates have pushed state lawmakers to do more to "equalize" residential property tax payments. So far, they've been unsuccessful.

"The more reliant we are on the operating referendum, the more important it is," Croonquist said. "We have to have a level playing field, and we don't right now."

Finally, school leaders are worried the generous funding increases they've seen from the Legislature might not continue. The new funding came primarily from budget surpluses created after Dayton and the formerly Democratic-led Legislature raised taxes on top earners.

Most of those surpluses have now been spent, and the now Republican-led Legislature's recently enacted tax cuts mean the budget cushion will be much smaller in the future.

That could spell trouble for public schools that look to the Capitol for an inflationary funding boost every year, which typically costs hundreds of millions of dollars.

"As the Legislature looks at an empty cookie jar, how is it going to fund education equitably in Minnesota?" Nolan asked.

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