Early returns from the polls Tuesday showed that some big Twin Cities school districts could be on the way to referendum wins.
In the state’s largest school district, Anoka-Hennepin, two referendum funding requests that district officials warned were needed to stave off huge district reductions, were winning by big margins with more than half of the precincts reporting.
More Minnesota districts — 99 out of 341 statewide — were going to voters for more money than any other year in recent history except 2001. Many schools were treating this year’s results as critical to the future of their school programs. Some districts were poised for either feast or famine. They could reap tens of millions in new tax dollars, or have to make cuts of historic proportions. In the Twin Cities metro area, and in St. Cloud, 34 school districts had their hands out for more money, either to avoid cuts to their classrooms and other programs, or to build new schools and perform school renovations.
Nowhere was the prospective pain or gain more evident than in Anoka-Hennepin. With a four-part ballot question being put to the voters, school officials said failure to pass the first questions would mean, according to preliminary projections, cutting 746 teachers, which would boost class sizes by six to 12 students.
Failure to pass the first question would also mean shutting down as many as six elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school, and raising the costs of sports and other activities as high as $800 per student. The remaining two questions were the gravy — easing the pocketbook pinch of high sports and activity fees, and upgrading school technology. Early results Tuesday showed those to be closer votes.
Robbinsdale schools faced another challenge. Iowa-based anti-tax consultant Paul Dorr had been enlisted by levy opponents to help defeat the district’s request. Dorr, who circulated anti-levy flyers to district residents and has built a reputation on helping to defeat levy and bond requests in five Midwestern states, might be enough to turn the tide. Early returns were tilted against the district’s proposal to extend the current $13.1 million-a-year levy and add $9.7 million in levy funds a year over the next decade.
Approving such levies carries a price too. Though a total property tax bill can rise and fall depending on a number of factors, approving a levy means taxpayers are going to take a hit. The owner of a house in the Anoka-Hennepin district valued for tax purposes at $250,000 would see $330 a year added to the tax bill.
Voters in seven districts — Belle Plaine, Burnsville-Eagan-Savage, Farmington, Inver Grove Heights, Lakeville, New Prague and Prior Lake — were deciding whether to raise their own property taxes to fund area schools.Burnsville-Eagan-Savage Superintendent Ben Kanninen said that the district’s request for an additional $6.75 million a year drew more voters to the polls on Tuesday than usual in an off-year election. He said the district focused efforts this year to make sure voters knew what a successful or failed levy referendum would mean.
He said that last year’s levy request was rejected because voters were tired of increasing property taxes.
“We redoubled our efforts to communicate effectively with parents, … and people who have a direct connection to the schools,” he said.
In Prior Lake-Savage, voters were deciding whether to fund a $28.9 million addition to Prior Lake High School. The five-year-old school, built to hold 2,000 students, is already past its capacity. An addition would add another wing to the southwest side of the school, and hold 600 students.
Early returns showed the vote running in favor of White Bear Lake’s proposed $1,470-per-pupil levy that would run for five years and replace an expiring levy. If the measure did not pass, district officials had said they would need to close five schools while eliminating 110 teaching positions and another 80 staff positions throughout the district. Voters turned down a levy referendum in the district last fall.
In Stillwater, early returns had three separate levies, which could pump more than $11 million per year into the district, passing by narrow margins. Groups for and against the levies battled throughout the fall, with a pro-levy group claiming its campaign signs had been stolen and an anti-levy group taking down its blog because of what it perceived as personal attacks on its members.
With all votes tabulated, Edina voters overwhelmingly approved a $105-million-a-year levy over 10 years. Other results weren’t in yet.
Westonka School District asked voters to approve an $877,000-a-year, 10-year operating levy. The request would boost the district’s per-pupil spending by about $334 to $1,470.
Westonka’s levy referendum and the school board election were hot topics in the district after Citizens for Common Sense co-founder Tom Notch called the levy a “maximum grab.”
District officials said the levy would help lower class sizes, keep current courses and programs and restore some of the program and staff cuts the district made in previous years.
In Bloomington, voters were asked to approve a two-question referendum with approximately $5.6 million in additional operating funds for 10 years, plus a $3 million-a-year technology levy, also for 10 years.
The operating levy would increase the district’s per-pupil spending by about $500 to $1,503 per student, district officials said.
The district said it would have to cut $5.2 million from its 2009-10 budget if the levy failed.
Staff writers Emily Johns, Patrice Relerford and Ben Goessling contributed to this report.
Norman Draper • 612-673-4547