Feelings strong on both sides of school levy debates

/ 4 November 2011 / Parents United
Feelings strong on both sides of school levy debates
Sunday, November 04, 2007 12:00 AM
Tim Pugmire, Minnesota Public Radio
People in 99 districts go to the polls Tuesday to decide a combined $229 million dollars in potential property tax increases. In a few districts where organized opposition has surfaced, the debate over school funding has been especially sharp.

St. Paul, Minn. — A levy referendum forum in the Robbinsdale school district last week had the feel of a pep rally. Voters gathered in the middle school auditorium, and listened to Superintendent Stan Mack describe the financial challenges facing local schools. “State funding has not kept up with inflation,” he said. “If funding had kept pace with inflation Robbinsdale Area Schools would have $11 million for in state revenue this school year, and we would not be here this evening.”

The Robbinsdale district is asking voters to extend an existing $13.1 million-per-year levy and increase the levy amount by $9.7 million a year for the next 10 years. If the referendum fails, Mack said the consequences include closing an elementary school, cutting 35 teaching positions and eliminating extra-curricular activities for middle school students.

“This referendum is about our future,” he said. “It’s about an investment in the future of our children and our community.”

Organizers of the forum also invited levy opponents. A group called Citizens Acting for Responsible Education has been causing a stir in the Robbinsdale district with its anti-referendum message. The group also hired Paul Dorr, an Iowa-based consultant with a reputation for defeating many small-town school referendums. Lynne Osterman, a former state legislator who’s leading the district’s “Vote Yes” campaign, was disappointed that opponents decided not to show up.

“We had really hoped to actually have a dialog,” she said. “We have been told that there is a group organizing an effort to defeat the levy. We’ve known they’ve been out in the community. But no one seems to be willing to kind of step out from the shadows and talk about their positions.”

Attempts to contact the “Vote No” group in Robbinsdale for this story were unsuccessful.

Organized levy opponents typically keep a low profile. But in the Stillwater school district, one opponent is going door to door with his concerns.

“These are not the right levies at the right time to do the right kind of things,” said Jim Kremer as he walked through a neighborhood near his Oak Park Heights home last week. He was dropping off literature about the levy referendum, as well as his campaign for school board.

Kremer worked to defeat a referendum last year, but he insists he’s not against kids or public education. Kremer said he just isn’t convinced the school district has made its case for a tax increase.

“This year they needed more money again, or say they need more money,” he said. “I went through the budget again. And it just is they refuse to look at anything that is going to have a major change on the way they do things. So I thought the only way to have impact is to run for the board.”

The Stillwater school district is seeking voter approval to continue an existing levy, adjusted for inflation, at $9.8 million a year. A second ballot question would add $3 million in annual revenue and a third question would provide another $1 million.

Supporters of the referendum say the needs are real and urgent. John Sievert, co-chair of the “Yes to Kids” campaign, said class sizes in Stillwater have grown intolerable.

“We have classes now where there’s a question of who gets to sit and who gets to stand,” he said. “There are five kids gathered around chemistry work station in a lab, for example when there should be two. We’re trying to teach kids 36, 37, 38 in a class in classrooms designed for 25. So if you look at the human toll of this, it gets to be pretty stark.”

A civil dialog between levy supporters and opponents has also been elusive in Stillwater. Both sides have accused the other of spreading misinformation, stealing lawns signs and making threats.

Bev Petrie, the other co-chair of “Yes to Kids,” said emotions are running high.

“There have clearly been passionate people acting inappropriately on both sides of the issue,” she said. “And I think it’s just because there’s so much at stake this year. There’s just so much at stake. And so people are doing sometimes doing things they shouldn’t be doing.”

School referendum success can be hard to predict, but statistics show they tend to do better in off-year elections like Tuesday’s. Last year, when voter turnout was relatively high, just 38 percent of the ballot questions passed. The year before 74 percent passed.


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