Federal

There’s No Guarantee When Voters Weigh School Taxes

By David J. Hoff — November 26, 2003 4 min read
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For just $6 a month, school advocates promised, voters in Bloomington, Minn., could stave off class sizes of 40 and higher student-activity fees, while bringing other benefits to their local schools.

With that information on their minds, voters in the Mall of America’s hometown approved a property-tax levy this month that will raise more than $3 million for the suburban district next year. A similar measure failed two years ago, but this latest levy passed with 56 percent of the vote.

The difference, say school officials, was the aggressive and well-organized effort by Unite Bloomington for Schools. The group of parents and community leaders mounted a political campaign that included phone banks, full-page newspaper ads, and 1,000 yard signs.

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While the outcome shows that even in difficult economic times taxpayers will reach into their own pockets to help pay for schools, there are no guarantees. Voters in Ohio and New Jersey, in contrast to their counterparts in Minnesota, have tended to reject school tax requests at high rates this year.

And the conflicting results send few clear messages to policymakers and political candidates facing demands to improve schools, provide tax relief, and lift personal income—all at the same time.

In Minnesota, the key to successful fund raising seems to be a well-crafted and energetic campaign.

“They worked night and day, were creative, and got the job done,” Addie Mattson, a spokeswoman for the 10,500-student Bloomington district, said of the levy proponents. “It was absolutely imperative, no question.”

Efforts such as Unite Bloomington for Schools are one of the reasons that voters across the state this year approved almost 70 percent of excess levies—tax measures used to supplement what school districts receive under the state’s funding formula.

“It takes a well-thought-out referendum-campaign strategy” to ensure passage, said Kenneth A. Dragseth, the superintendent of the 7,200- student school system in Edina, Minn., the city between Bloomington and Minneapolis.

Edina voters approved an excess levy and a $86 million construction bond on Election Day, thanks in large part to the organized campaigns for them, Mr. Dragseth said.

“Most school districts that are successful have parents and community members running these campaigns,” he said.

Taxing Problems

While Minnesota voters seem increasingly willing to approve school-related taxes, other states saw public support for school funding issues decline this year.

In Ohio, for example, school boards lost more than half the operating levies and bond proposals on the November ballot—a rate far below the five-year average of 63 percent, according to the state department of education.

“It’s the economic uncertainty,” said George E. Tombaugh, the superintendent of the 14,200- student Westerville city schools, near Columbus, Ohio. Fifty-six percent of his district’s voters rejected a proposal to raise property taxes by 7.50 mills—or $7.50 annually for every $1,000 of assessed property value.

The money would have supplemented the school budget passed by the Franklin County board of commissioners. Last May, Westerville voters rejected a proposal for 8 mills by a ratio of 2-to-1.

“Some people just say, ‘I’m not going to give you more money,’ ” Mr. Tombaugh said.

Likewise, New Jersey voters rejected 62 percent of operating-budget proposals this year. That’s the lowest passing rate since 1994, the New Jersey School Boards Association says. The voting occurred in April, as required by state law.

“It’s tough across the board [in the state] because of the current economic situation,” said Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the school boards’ group.

Mr. Dragseth, who travels throughout the country as the National Superintendent of the Year, said administrators nationwide are struggling to raise money to stave off state budget cuts.

“Everywhere I’m going, financial issues are the number- one topic,” the Edina superintendent said. “It’s becoming more difficult because the strength of the anti-tax [groups] and anti-public-education groups.”

‘Convince People’

Because passing operating budgets, excess levies, and construction bonds is increasingly hard, Mr. Dragseth said, school leaders must consider fund raising a big part of their job: “You have to convince people all along that, to have an excellent school district, you’re going to have to ask for money along the way.”

Minnesota voters appeared to understand that their state’s recent budget troubles have left schools with bare-bones budgets that require supplementing from local taxpayers.

“It used to be that excess levies were considered cake and frosting,” said Shelley Tougas, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota School Boards Association. “In the past 15 years or so, they’ve become a bread-and-butter part of the budget.”

Some voters, though, feel that their own pocketbooks are too squeezed to send money to schools, or resent being asked to foot higher bills year after year.

In Ohio, the Columbus area and other sections in the center of the state were especially hesitant to vote for tax increases, said W. Scott Ebright, the deputy communications director for the Ohio School Boards Association.

“We’re being hit with large employers moving out” of central Ohio, he said. “In communities that traditionally support the schools, the voters are saying no.”

In addition to the economic uncertainties in New Jersey, district officials there face an electorate that is already overwhelmed by some of the highest property-tax rates in the country, Mr. Belluscio said.

In Ohio and many other states, districts must return to voters to get approval for tax increases. That’s what Mr. Tombaugh expects the Westerville schools will have to do next year.

“We will have to come back, definitely,” he said. “Our needs continue. We can’t cut our way out of our fiscal problems.

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