ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — About a third of Minnesota school districts are planning to ask voters to approve local levies this fall, and now one prominent Republican lawmaker says he plans an unprecedented campaign against some school leaders who plead poverty.
While state lawmakers traditionally stay out of local levy decisions, Minnesota Public Radio News reports (http://bit.ly/ncs3e6) the chairman of the House Finance Committee, Rep. Patrick Garofalo, R-Farmington, said it’s time to speak out.
He is reminding district leaders that they just received a boost in state funding, including another $50 per pupil. “When you’re making these additional expenditures at the statewide level, the property tax is not to be used to go back for a second bite of the apple,” Garofalo said.
Garofalo said he plans to be very vocal about districts he says are abusing the process when it comes to levy votes, and he expects other Republican lawmakers to join him.
“The important thing is that we have accountability in dollars,” he said. “Unfortunately, we have some school boards that are using people’s generosity to engage in the fleecing of taxpayers, and that’s just not acceptable.”
He said he hopes that some school leaders will cancel their referendum plans.
Garofalo is not alone in his concerns. State Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, recently sent a newsletter to his constituents asking them to urge school officials to drop their proposed levy referendums.
The latest information from the Minnesota School Boards Association shows about one in three Minnesota districts plan levy elections in November. A large share of those would renew expiring levies. In those cases, taxes would not increase.
Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, said voters need to understand the distinction. Croonquist said voters and legislators should also understand that districts are not seeking tax increases based solely on the outcome of one legislative session.
“The facts are very clear that education funding has not kept pace with inflation in Minnesota over the last decade,” Croonquist said. “Consequently, school districts have been trimming and cutting substantially during that time frame. And many of them have now reached a point where there’s just no more fat left to cut.”
Croonquist said the financial situation of each district is unique. He called the broad accusations from Garofalo as “unfortunate and unfair.”
A key House Democrat, state Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, offered a harsher criticism of Garofalo.
“Shame on him for blurring the picture and making it harder for schools to get the money they need for their own students,” said Greiling, the lead minority member of the House Education Finance Committee.
Greiling said she always offered support for school referendums when asked. She also said the chairman was wrong to challenge the integrity of local school leaders — an approach she said would be unprecedented.
“Having been a school board member myself one time, I know that districts are very slow to the table and hesitant to ask for more property tax increases,” Greiling said. “They know, and the superintendents know, that that isn’t popular. So when they ask for money, they really need it.”
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