MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The phone banks have been humming for three weeks straight in the headquarters of the teachers’ union for Minnesota’s largest school district, as Anoka-Hennepin teachers and their allies plead with voters to renew an operating levy worth $48 million a year.

“If this levy were to fail, I don’t know what our district would look like,” said Julie Blaha, president of the local chapter of Education Minnesota. One in five teachers would be let go, she said. Class sizes would top 40. Elementary art and music classes would be eliminated, she said.

Those are the sort of dire warnings heard throughout Minnesota as a third of the state’s school districts ask voters on Tuesday to put aside their worries about the sputtering economy and pony up money they need to preserve electives, hold the line on class sizes and replace aging buses, among other things.

The Minnesota School Boards Association reports 113 districts are asking for authority to tap property taxes for everyday expenses — about half seeking renewal of current levies. Twenty districts want to raise money for capital spending, including building repairs. Together, it’s the most requests since 2001.

Although Anoka-Hennepin has been hit hard by the recession and home foreclosures, Blaha said she hasn’t seen a strong anti-tax feeling among the voters this fall. That may be because the district isn’t asking for luxuries, she said: “This is really very basic, everyday, practical, nitty-gritty stuff.”

Anoka-Hennepin voters will get three questions on Tuesday. They can renew the existing $48 million levy, approve another $3 million a year to upgrade the district’s technology and, finally, give the school board authority to levy another $12 million to cover future shortfalls in state school funding.

School officials say they are turning to local taxpayers because their balance sheets are in tatters after years of lagging state funding and an accounting shift during the past legislative session that pushed 40 percent of state school aid payments into the next fiscal year.

The financial problems aren’t unique to Minnesota. Researchers at the nonpartisan Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reported earlier this month that state spending on education has fallen below 2008 levels in at least 30 states, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota and Illinois.

In those years, states have seen tax revenues dry up in the recession and have also cut back on human services, health care, higher education and other areas. The center found the exceptions were states with oil and gas money, including North Dakota, or where lawmakers have made education a priority, including Iowa.

In Minnesota, research from the Department of Education found that state per-pupil funding increased from 2003 to 2011, but at a rate well below inflation. At the same time, school districts became more reliant on local property taxes through voter-approved levies. Now, 90 percent of school districts have a local levy.

The levy campaigns have had their critics. Rep. Patrick Garofalo, R-Farmington, the chairman of the House Education Finance Committee, said voters should question districts that seek to raise, rather than renew, levies.

He said the Legislature increased spending on K-12 education by $650 million during the past session, including a $100 increase in per pupil spending over two years and new money for suburban and rural districts. “Now just a few months later, many districts are back asking for more,” Garofalo said.

Garofalo said this week that school districts were trying to exploit the low turnouts of odd-year elections, when they are more likely to pass. He vowed to introduce a bill requiring them to be held in even-numbered years.

Not even all local school board members believe the grim predictions. Duluth school board member Art Johnston has been writing and speaking against his own district’s three-part levy request. Johnston claims the district is twisting the numbers to make itself appear more needy.

“We can’t keep yelling, ‘Wolf!’ That’s what keeps happening,” Johnston said. “I don’t want to lose the support of the community.”

Katie Kaufman, a spokeswoman for the Duluth schools, said the district was “absolutely” sure its public statements about the levy were accurate, including reports of years of cost cutting and a projected budget deficit of more than $4 million next year if none of the three levy questions pass.

In western Minnesota, the superintendent of the small school district of Battle Lake is hoping his community will approve the first operating levy since 1997. It would raise $527,000 and cost the average homeowner $252 a year, said Superintendent Jeff Drake.

He said the district has been making ends meet by tapping its savings account for three years. Now it’s going to the voters. “We are not trying to do this to bring extra programs to the district,” Drake said. “We’re trying to keep offering what we are.”

It’s been a tough sell in parts of the district where people have retired to lakeshore homes, he said. That combination of valuable property and fixed incomes means “any type of cash increase is more of a sensitive issue for those folks,” he said.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Comments (19)
  1. sue says:

    If they start cutting administration costs instead of teachers they would have a ton of money left over.
    All they want to do is scare the people into getting more money by saying we will have to have larger class size and cut after school activities so the parents feel like they have to vote for this.
    I’m so sick and tired of the schools always begging for money because it never stops and goes on every year. Well I pay enough property taxes which never go down and always go up even though my house is worth $30,000 less.
    Start living within your budget which was increased a lot this year per pupil and start cutting those hefty administration costs.

  2. No More Free Money!!!!! says:

    Sue you are correct and enough is enough, then again you have people like a co-worker of mine that can’t wait to go vote for the Anoka levy because those teachers need the money so bad. Well yeah it is easy for her to say Yes to the vote because she doesn’t pay property taxes she rents.
    These levies are a sham and if they would start making the teachers pay part of their insurance and retirement then people might not have such an issue with these, BUT they don’t. You can’t tell me that the teachers are under paid and they have such a hard job, yeah must be nice only working 200 some days a year.
    I had an old roommate that taught K-2 and she got paid 65K a year. I don’t know about you but if 65K isn’t good enough then you got issues, hec if 40K isn’t good enough then you got issues because that is what a lot of us get a year and we work all year long and pay our share of insurance and retirement. Just because you work for the state doesn’t mean you should get a free ride. You want to vote yes then go to your local school give them a check and leave us that don’t want our property taxes raise alone. Enough said

    1. llp says:

      She does it’s part of the rent

      1. No More Free Money!!!!! says:

        Yeah in an appartment complex with 300 appartments? Yep she makes up her fair share in the rent. No matter how you look at it unless you are renting a place for the exact same price as the landlords payment/taxes (which a lot do I understand that) then you aren’t paying your share of that levy no matter how you try and justify it.

    2. llp says:

      The 60/40 percentages are part of the so-called “shifts” by which the state-aid payments for education have been “shifted” [delayed] from one year or biennium to the next year. Previous shifts have resulted in school-aid payments being delayed causing major problems for most school districts. As was indicated, in addition to not receiving aid payments on time, the school districts incurred costs such as interest on borrowed monies for which the district was not re-imbursed by the state.

  3. Denise says:

    What amazes me is that just above this story is the story of the woman who punched her young daughter several times in the face. This is a child who is likely in our public school system. Can you imagine the environment she comes from? The public school she goes to has the task of educating her so that she will pass the Minnesota state standards tests and so she will utilimately be college and career ready. This child comes to us with huge needs. In order to meet those needs, it takes many people and a lot of resources. If we believe that ALL children can learn and be successful and perhaps break a pattern in a family, then we must pay the costs. Believe me, it’s crazy to think that a classroom teacher alone with 30+++ kids in a classroom can meet all of those needs of all those children like this young girl. She deserves a chance, beyond her home environment of being successful. If it takes money and resources, then let’s do it.

    1. No More Free Money!!!! says:

      @Denise, they would gladly accept a check made out to them. No one here is stopping you or anyone from going to that district and writing a big old fat check in their name. Please by all means, I can’t help that her mom beats her, her mom probably got the same thing but it isn’t the teachers that are going to make her better, only she is going to make herself better by doing something with her life. I mean giving these levies to schools in North Minneapolis has done wonders there for getting kids the help they need, huh? Just asking

      1. Denise says:

        What do you think North Mineeapolis would be without the education they receive? Even more drop-outs, more people unable to obtain skills necessary for employment. Good luck to us all if we give up. But what could it be like if we give it our all? “only she is going to make herself better dy doing something with her life.” Since this is what she knows, how can she see what she can do? We have to show her, to tell her she can. That’s her school’s job. And it takes money and time. Pay now or pay later….but you’re gonna pay.

    2. Commonsense says:

      When did it become the schools responsiblity to take care of any of that. These children are sent to school to get an education – it shouldn’t be the schools responsiblity to teach them morals, values or a host of other things that should be taught at home. We have brought out education system down to glorified babysitters when it comes to college other countries are so far ahead of us it’s scary and NO amount of money will change a broke system – get back to teaching reading, writing and arithmatic.

      1. Denise says:

        Actually, if you read about American education system, the first responsibility of public education was to teach morals and values! All the textbooks were about morality and social responsibility. Thomas Jefferson was key in founding our system and believed that we were to make a responsible citizenship. We cannot succeed unless we address all the issues.

  4. Wake up says:

    I agree that the schools need to live within there means – we all have to and I’m not paying more so you can have a raise and cheaper health care. I’ve seen teachers take a pay cut of a wage freeze, meanwhile the adminstrators are getting bonuses – thats just wrong. Cut your administatrators in 1/2 and drop what you pay a principal (over a 100K is insane) and then we’ll talk. As far as renters paying there share – not hardly – it’s spread over everyone so it’s pretty much non existant so it really doesn’t effect them.

  5. G Dog says:

    Do your homework people. Minnesota is among the top ten states for cutting public school budgets over the last 20 years. We have dropped from #5 in school funding to #22. The legislature has “borrowed” more than $2 billion from schools which forces them to borrow money for financial institutions (with interest).

    Think about it – if 1/3 of the districts in the state are asking for more money, doesn’t that tell you that the legislature has not been doing their job????

    1. Chris says:

      You are right. We already paid taxes once, the state held it, now the schools are taxing again. Wake up people, the state is stealing from the schools, then telling the schools to tax you again in a referendum.

      SAY NO

  6. Goober says:

    I’d rather pay a teacher, pay more taxes and see our schools flourish once again than vote against the levy. Think people… when you put 50+ kids in a classroom, force them to have study halls, they’re going to skip school. It won’t be beneficial for them. When you combine skipping school and teens, you get thugs and theives. I’d rather pay a teacher than have my things stolen.

  7. Todd says:

    The value of the houses in Hennepin county have dropped across the board but the property taxes spiked thanks to the pensions fund that we have to pour cash in to to cover. The schools are asking for more money without any commentary on reducing the administration staff. It is kind of hard to believe that putting more money in to the pot is really going to help anything.

  8. No More Free Money!!!! says:

    How come no one answered my question? Why don’t all of you that want this levy to pass go down to the school and write a BIG fat check in the name of the school? Oh that’s right you want everyone else to give, If you want to give then give no one is stopping you.

    1. Denise says:

      That’s it, No More Free Money!!!! You need to go back to school. You have grammar errors throughout your comments. I think your right to comment here on education and money should be done. My 7th grade daughter would know better than to write with the grammar errors you have. You look silly to the educated.

  9. No More Free Money!!! says:

    @Denise, I didn’t know I was in grammer school in here and can misssppeell use in correct grammer all I want. Bottom line is you still don’t want to go down to the school and write that BIG fat check made out to the district. You still can’t answer my question….that tells me that you probably don’t have it but want the rest of us to foot the bill. I am no English teacher but your sentence that says “I think your right to comment here on education and money should be done” really doesn’t make sense. What should be done? Just saying

  10. Walter says:

    They schools need the money.

    It’s expensive to teach Johnny that it’s OK to have two dads.

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