Minnesota voters cooling to borrowing and capital spending requests from local school districts

A record number of school districts in 2015 have already asked the voters to spend on building and other capital projects, and while the majority of the requests are being approved, it’s down from recent years.  By the end of the calendar year, 67 local school districts will have made their requests.  On Tuesday night, only 58% of the capital project requests (26 of 45 ballot questions) were approved by Minnesota voters compared to 87% approval (47 of 54 ballot questions) in 2014.  Prior to election day this year, voters had said “yes” to 61% of the requests (20 of 33 ballot questions.)

In another comparison to 2013, voters in 22 of 26 school districts (85%) approved capital spending requests, while on Tuesday 28 out of 41 (68%) districts did.    Still, the amount of borrowing approved by local taxpayers was huge, nearly $1.1 billion of $1.6 billion in bonding requests.

In South Washington County, one of the few districts with an active “vote no” campaign, one of the ballot questions passed by a mere 19 votes out of 13,659 cast, resulting in approval for $96 million for a new middle school building project. The other capital request for $46.5 million for additions to the high school and elementary schools failed.

In Detroit Lakes, voters rejected all three capital spending requests totaling $83.6 million for a new middle school, a new performing arts center, and a $7.9 million swimming pool.  In Kimball, voters said “no” to two ballot questions which included a $6.6 million auditorium for the district with only 632 students.  In GHEC (Grenada Huntley East Chain) in southern Minnesota, voters strongly supported a $6.91 million bond for an addition to the high school and to decommission an old building.  The borrowing cost per pupil in the district with 189 students is $36,561.

St. Cloud voters soundly defeated a $161 million request for a new school building, renovations, and technology improvements. Forest Lake voters split their tickets, approving $143 million in repairs, upgrades and security improvements at a borrowing cost of $21,654 per pupil, but rejecting $18 million for a new high school track and art center upgrades. Small Maple River with 958 students, rejected a $47.7 million request for a new PreK-12 building.

Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan voters approved the largest request–$180 million for building renovations and safety upgrades and technology for the large district with 26,963 students.  Delano voters approved both bonding questions for $65 million for a new building and improvements to existing buildings at a borrowing cost of $27,357 per pupil.

Minnetonka Schools had a strongly organized “vote yes” campaign with ties to the teachers union, and they won big with 72% voter approval for $54 million for technology spending, despite the fact that one-third of students don’t reside in the school district. 

As is almost-always the case, many districts who got a “no” from the voters will send their district staff back to the drawing board, conduct a community survey, and go back to the polls to ask again.  The taxpayer-funded district staff time dedicated to promoting these measures is incalculable.   According to the South Washington County Bulletin, “The School administrators ran what was described as an informational campaign, holding community forums and over 100 various meetings to discuss the district’s budget situation, its planned spending cuts if the levy was not approved and why it sought the bond measures.”  The schools are not allowed by law to tell people who to vote on a measure.

Operating levies are the other part of the school referendum picture, and voters gave a warmer reception for funding the measures that supplement state spending per pupil, approving measures in 90% of the districts who asked on Tuesday.  Most operating levies replaced existing ones.

In Rochester, where the school district used their attorney to threaten a local tea party group running a “vote no” campaign, the 1o-year $9.61 million operating levy hike was passed by a very slim margin with 50.5% approval and a high turnout of 30% of the voters. 239 votes decided the measure.

Governor Dayton told MPR News that Minnesota needs to keep up with spending on needs to fund facilities for his all-day kindergarten program as he continues to push for all-day universal PreK.  “We’ve been behind so many other states in our failure to address these earlier year needs,” he said. “If we need to build more school buildings to catch up, then that’s what we should be doing.”

Take a closer look at where voters said “Yes” and “No” to capital spending requests and also the cost per pupil.

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