Education Funding

Levies’ Rejection Squeezes School Districts

By Bryan Toporek — November 16, 2010 4 min read
Voters in many Minnesota and Ohio communities turned down requests for tax levies linked to funding for public schools.
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School districts throughout Minnesota and Ohio face tough and politically touchy choices—including the prospect of personnel and program cuts—after the Nov. 2 elections, in which voters in both states rejected roughly half the ballot measures that would have boosted districts’ operating funds.

School funding levies can be a tough sell even in a good economy, and districts often avoid putting levies on regular election-year ballots to avoid competing with high-profile campaigns for state governorships and Congress.

This year, many already cash-strapped districts faced an additional hurdle: According to CNN’s exit polls, 62 percent of voters named the economy as their top concern this election season.

The results were mixed—and for school districts on the losing end—potentially painful.

Ohio districts placed 214 school levies on ballots around the state, and saw 109, or 51 percent, actually pass. In Minnesota, 76 districts had levies on their ballots—the largest number since 2007, when 101 districts asked voters for financial support—and won passage in 42 cases, or 55 percent.

Passage rates for such levies can vary widely from year to year: In 2006, for example, only 42 percent of Minnesota’s districts managed to get a funding referendum passed, while 72 percent got voted through last year.

But that’s little solace for hard-pressed districts that saw their proposals rejected.

“Without the prospect of the district receiving additional revenue, more reductions in operations, programs, and services will be necessary,” wrote Michael E. Zalar, the superintendent of the 3,900-student Oregon, Ohio, school system, on his school-sponsored website. His district tried to pass a $5.9 million emergency operating levy, but voters rejected it for the second time.

Cheryl Atkinson, the superintendent of the 8,400-student Lorain city schools in Lorain, Ohio, where voters also turned down a levy, said that “children are the innocent victims of a very bad economy and a tough time.” Lorain hasn’t had a new operating levy in 20 years.

“My hope is that education is not for Democrats or Republicans or Independents, it’s for everyone,” she said. “My hope is that the change in leadership [in the state legislature] will still understand the importance of every child having an education.”

Charlie Kyte, the executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, echoed that sentiment.

“I think it has to do with uncertainty and fear of the future by the citizenry,” said Mr. Kyte. “By and large, I don’t see a lot of them voted down because people feel poorly about the schools. I think they’re just looking at their tax bills.”

New vs. Renewed

In both states, districts attempted to pass two types of measures: renewal levies, which would continue taxes due to expire, and new levies, which would result in an increase in taxes for voters. And in both states, renewal levies had a far greater success rate than new levies.

“We saw 76 districts try for some form of operating levies this November. It looked like the renewals passed, but the new levies, even when they were a small amount, mostly failed,” said Greg Abbott, a spokesman for the Minnesota School Boards Association.

Twelve districts in Minnesota attempted to get new levies passed; only two of them succeeded.

Meanwhile, the Ohio School Boards Association found that voters passed only one-fourth of the 96 new levies proposed by districts in that state.

A number of the proposed new levies in both states would have cost owners of $100,000 homes roughly $100 to $150 per year.

In Minnesota, school officials were surprised by at least one wrinkle in how the levy requests were received by voters.

“Last year, a majority of suburban referendums passed, but almost every rural one failed,” said Mr. Kyte, of the Minnesota administrators’ group. “This year, it was the opposite. Rural districts saw success getting their referendums passed, while suburban districts struggled.”

Looking Ahead

Districts that couldn’t get voters to pass new or renewed levies now face the prospect of cuts across the board for the 2011-12 school year.

A number of districts have already highlighted areas that could be on the chopping block, including after-school sports, extracurricular activities, and, especially, teaching jobs.

Schools in Minnesota must construct their 2011-12 operating budgets next spring, before the state’s budget is final. With Minnesota facing a $6 billion deficit, schools in the state have all but ruled out an increase in state-level education funding for next year.

For the past two years, state funding for schools has remained stagnant, and Mr. Kyte expressed concerns about a potential decrease in state aid for 2011-12.

Ross Bennett, a spokesman for Minnesota’s 7,200-student Forest Lakes school district, said that since teacher salaries constitute between 80 percent and 85 percent of districts’ budgets, teacher job losses appear inevitable for districts that couldn’t get levies passed. No final decisions have been made yet in the case of his district, however.

In Ohio, the Lorain school board voted against making any substantial cuts until next summer, arguing that the reductions would prove too distracting to students during the school year. Ms. Atkinson conceded, though, that staff cuts appear to be all but a certainty at this point, as the school district will be operating with a $10 million deficit by the end of the 2011-12 school year if no new levies pass.

And a number of Ohio districts, including Lorain, Sylvania, Cardinal, and Columbia, already plan to place their levies back on the ballot next year. Lorain and Sylvania have decided to skip holding a special election in February, citing the excess costs to the district, and will participate during the May primaries instead.

Other districts in the state, such as Columbia and Cardinal, are placing emergency levies on an early-February ballot, saying that the money they hope to raise is necessary for the districts’ continued existence.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2010 edition of Education Week as Defeat of Levies Puts Squeeze on School Districts

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