Rural Minnesota school districts target farmers for projects

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Brian Thalmann climbed down from his combine on a recent Tuesday afternoon for a quick photo op before starting in on a new field of corn. As he'd explained over the phone the day before while out harvesting, he's working long days to make up for lost time.

Farmers are scrambling to harvest their crops, because of a late planting — after the April blizzard and a wet spring — and a cooler-than-normal fall that delayed crop maturity.

Once the harvest is complete, he'll face another stressor: a lack of access to markets here and abroad that have brought sale prices down, even as farming costs continue to rise.

He's counting on his family farm — currently a three-generation operation — to cover the costs of everything from equipment repairs to college tuition for his kids.

Thalmann is a past president/board chair of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. His 2,000 acre farm, located in the Plato area, just west of the Carver County line, is responsible for covering a significant portion of a school building project in the Glencoe-Silver Lake Public Schools district, where voters approved a $24 million bond referendum in 2015. When it comes to bond referendums, property owners are taxed on each acre (unlike operating levies, which are confined to a house, a garage and one acre of land).

"I voted for the school bond," he said, noting he anticipates he'll have grandchildren attending the same schools his kids attended one day. "I felt I had to deal with the unfair tax situation."

Fortunately, he says, state legislators implemented a new ag credit two years later that helped ease the property tax burden of bond referendums on farmers. Now he only has to foot 60% of his bill, with the state picking up the other 40%. And starting in 2020, he'll see his share of that bill decrease even more.

In a bipartisan effort to ease the financial burden on farmers when communities pass bond referendums — and, in turn, increase the likelihood of ag communities passing school bonds — state lawmakers scaled up the Ag2School credit, as it's been dubbed by supporters. The state will scale this credit up to 70% by 2023.

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The nonprofit news outlet MinnPost provided this article to The Associated Press through a collaboration with Institute for Nonprofit News.

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Some rural districts say they're already seeing the impacts of these changes. Others are hopeful as they look ahead to Nov. 5, when over 30 districts across the state will be asking voters to approve bond referendums.

"It's huge because there are so many districts that have over 70% of their value in the ag land," says Fred Nolan, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association (MREA). "They couldn't even have conversations about their school buildings — built in the 1800s or 1910, 1912 — because the farmers were going to foot so much of the bill they couldn't even have a civic conversation."

As rural administrators and education advocates, along with ag groups, lobbied to increase the Ag2School credit this past legislative session at the state Capitol, a number of rural districts went to voters with bond referendum requests.

Historically, rural voters have approved fewer bond questions than metro voters. And the pattern has continued in 2019. But some rural superintendents are certain this credit is helping to change the conversation in their communities.

For instance, in February, voters in the Russel-Tyler-Ruthton Public Schools district passed a $35 million bond referendum, by a wide margin, to build a new preK-12 school building in Tyler. The new building will replace three 80- to 100-year-old buildings that "have all outlived their service to the district," says Superintendent Dave Marlette.

Over the years, the southwestern district has tried — and failed — to pass a bond referendum a number of times. Each time, the ask has looked a bit different, with pitches to invest in remodeling projects and more. But Marlette — who's only in his second year with the district, but has helped other rural communities pass bond referendums — says the ag credit, even at 40%, got voters on board this time around.

"My district is 87% farmers," he said. "Basically, for every dollar that they were gonna pay in taxes this year, 40% of it is paid by the state. That's a huge savings to each of my rural families. So it was a major player in us passing our bond referendum."

He says folks from MREA came out to talk with farmers and other interested voters ahead of the special election — to explain how it worked and how there was a bipartisan effort under way at the Capitol to scale that credit up to 70%.

Farther north, in the Barnesville Public Schools district, voters approved a $24.5 million bond referendum in August for classrooms, security upgrades, a high school gym and other facility upgrades. The main request passed by a wide margin; and two smaller asks totaling a little over $3 million — for a walking track, additional auditorium seating and a connection between the high school and elementary school — passed as well.

Superintendent Jon Ellerbusch says two prior referendum attempts failed, before he joined the district in July. Notably, the initial ask was much larger. But even after the school board scaled back the scope of the building projects, members of the ag community — including three on the school board who hadn't voted in support of that ask — thwarted a second vote.

This time around, Ellerbusch says, the referendum had the support of all seven board members, who were able to use their personal connections with the local ag community to raise awareness about the Ag2School credit gaining traction at the Capitol.

"I really do believe the reason there wasn't a vocal 'no' group this time was because of the Ag2School credit," he said, calling it "the greatest factor" in passing the main bond referendum earlier this year.

Ahead of the August referendum, one board member who farms told Ellerbush that the first vote for a $36 million referendum would have raised his tax bill by about $36,000 annually. With the ag credit in place — combined with a much smaller referendum amount — he'll see that bill drop to about $6,000 a year.

Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, authored the bill that scales the Ag2School credit up to 70% by 2023. He teaches in the Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton Public Schools district, which is located along the state border, near Fargo.

He says this bipartisan provision has solid footing at the Capitol, where it's seen as both a school equity measure and an economic measure.

"Even with the 70% (credit) . any increase for farmers at this time is tough. But it does help create more fairness for farmers," Marquart said, noting he anticipates the credit will have "huge significance in covering the cost of a bond" in many rural districts seeking taxpayer-support facility upgrades.

Farmers may only make up a small segment of the voter population in these communities, he says, but folks living in town empathize with their financial situations and aren't necessarily willing to outvote them.

Lindsey Leach, a member of the Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton school board, knows this dynamic well. Prior to joining the board, she participated in an ag-driven opposition that defeated the last bond referendum attempt in 2015.

'We were less than 1% of the voting population," she said. "But we sat together and thought: 'How do we get info out?' We put fliers out with facts and yard signs and went knocking on people's doors."

Her motivation was twofold: She didn't feel the old proposal would serve students from all three communities equitably and she couldn't afford the added expense on her property tax bill.

On Nov. 5, she and her fellow board members are now asking voters to approve a $31.4 million bond referendum to fund a number of renovations, including a new secure front entrance, new open spaces where students can work collaboratively and new science labs. And she anticipates that the Ag2School credit — combined with a community-driven plan designed to build more solidarity among the three consolidated communities — will offer farmers, like herself, enough relief to vote yes this time around.

Just the other day, she says, she drove by a farm and noticed a "vote yes" sign on the land. "I think that tells you where our community is at," she said.

Even farther north, in the Ada-Borup School District, voters will be deciding the fate of a $9 million bond referendum on Nov. 5. The plan would expand upon secure front-entrance renovations already in the works with the support of a state grant, add elementary classrooms, add a new atrium leading to a multipurpose area and more.

With 86% of the district's net tax capacity being ag land, says Aaron Cook — the district's business manager who's currently completing his licensure to become superintendent — the Ag2School credit will play a huge factor. In fact, $5.2 million of the $9 million bond would be covered by the state, through the Ag2School credit, he says.

"Honestly, if there was no Ag2School credit, whatsoever, we probably wouldn't have looked at all, at (a bond referendum)," he said.

Sugar beet farmers in his district have been struggling with all of the rain this fall, he says. But with the word out about the Ag2School credit, he says he hasn't seen any signs of a "vote no" campaign.

Likewise, in the Zumbrota-Mazeppa School District, in southeastern Minnesota, Superintendent Michael Harvey says farmers are finding assurance in the increased Ag2School credit as he shares information about the district's three-part $46 million bond referendum that's on the Nov. 5 ballot. The bulk of the ask will help fund additions and renovations to accommodate 21st century learning needs of students, along with a growing student population.

District leaders brought that amount down a bit — and broke out the athletic components into separate asks — after voters rejected a nearly $50 million bond referendum in May. Harvey says the attempt in May brought out a record number of voters, which he attributes to farmers who "were uncertain" about their crops after a late planting season.

This time around, he's been very intentional about getting information about the Ag2School credit out to farmers, through community meetings.

"I believe it will be influential in this election," he said. "I have to talked to some farmers who've said, 'I voted no last time, but I'll vote yes this time.' The other answer I'll get is: 'I'm not as strongly opposed to it as before. I don't know what I'll do yet.'"


The nonprofit news outlet MinnPost provided this article to The Associated Press through a collaboration with Institute for Nonprofit News.


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