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Minnesota school districts place funding measures totaling $616 million in November ballot

Voters in Hawley will decide whether to accept their school district’s request for a new middle school. In Canby, district officials say they need $8 million to upgrade the high school gymnasium. And in Eden Prairie, district officials want to make sure they can meet day-to-day expenses.

In total, voters in 21 Minnesota school districts will weigh in on about $616 million in funding measures on Nov. 8.

The bulk of these are levy requests that will span six to ten years to pay for everything from teachers to routine maintenance and technology upgrades.

And most of them are voter renewals of existing levies in those districts approved over the past decade. Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, sees these elections as a barometer of how voters think districts used that money.

“I think the problem, for school districts, is that it’s referendums about how they get away with it,” he said.

The fact that school districts across the state are largely asking voters to approve money for ongoing spending is a departure from the February and August ballots of this year. The largest of those efforts, a $463 million building bond application in the South Washington County District, was flatly rejected by voters in August.

In total, districts have placed 31 fundraising actions on the ballot so far this year, totaling just over $1 billion. Voters approved about $292 million.

As of November, only three districts — Cass Lake, Chisholm and Hawley — are asking voters to foot the bill for new buildings, which range in price from $32 million to around $53 million.

Eden Prairie school district officials imposed two 10-year levies on the November ballot, both of which were renewed.

The first will ask voters whether to repeal and replace the current operating tax, which costs about $1,815 per student, and increase it by $260 per student per year. On a home worth $430,000, district officials calculated the impact to be about $95 per year.

The second question will ask voters if they should renew a technology tax that pays for devices, services and maintenance. Superintendent Josh Swanson said the district will also need to repair the fiber optic network that has been installed in its schools over the past decade in a few years.

“It really served its purpose, but when you have to replace that fiber, it’s buried underground throughout the community,” he said. “It’s expensive to maintain.”

The district is asking for an increase in its operating tax because state funding hasn’t kept up with inflation, Swanson said. Last year, the District of Eden Prairie had to withdraw $750,000 from its budget reserves to make up the difference.

This year, that gap is closer to $1 million.

“The general fund formula has not kept up with inflation and we have seen this in the cross-subsidies [for special education and English language learners] too,” Swanson said.

Swanson told community members at a town hall meeting that operating tax funds allow the District of Eden Prairie to provide competitive compensation for its educators.

According to data from the Minnesota Department of Education, the district ranks among the top 20 in the seven-county metropolitan area for teacher compensation and among the highest averages for principals.

Amaal Ali, a mother of three from the district, said she saw the difference the funding makes. Her eldest is a high school student and had to navigate an elementary school with larger classes than her youngest, who is in second grade.

Ali worries about the cuts Eden Prairie officials would have to make if the operational levy fails in November.

“It’s worth the investment,” she said. “It’s worth the education of our children.”

Schneidawind of the school board association said districts will generally reevaluate applications that fail and try again later. The South Washington County District, for example, plans to offer voters a reduced bond application in February.

“I think districts are being realistic about what they need and have to balance that with what the community is willing to pay,” Schneidawind said.