Twin Cities schools bet big on fall ballot
Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, August 19, 2013 – Twin Cities school districts will not just be asking voters for more money for operations this November — half of those expected to be on fall ballot are seeking funds for buildings, technology and other capital expenses.
Nine of the 18 metro districts seeking more money have capital projects as part of or as their entire tax request.
In the east metro, White Bear Lake, South Washington County and Inver Grove Heights districts will ask voters for funds for facility upgrades, new technology or land purchases.
The new tax requests come months after Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and the DFL-controlled Legislature wrapped up what some nicknamed the “education session.”
State spending for education was increased $485 million, including money for all-day kindergarten and 1.5 percent increases each year in the general education funding formula.
But many school leaders say those increases were not enough to offset years of stagnant funding.
Furthermore, deferred maintenance needs have built up and expanding early education programs have created new demands for space.
“At the end of the day, the Legislature provided about an inflationary increase,” said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, a public school advocate at the Capitol. “The reality is we still rely on local operating referendums.”
When it comes to capital expenses — dollars for building schools, repairing aging buildings or buying technology — Croonquist said the state’s system for funding is unbalanced.
About two dozen of Minnesota’s school districts are part of an alternative facilities program that allows them to levy taxes without voter approval for capital costs, Croonquist said. Typically, only districts with a lot of square footage and aging buildings qualify for the program. Others must have requests approved by local taxpayers.
“We have a real uneven playing field right now,” he said. “The policy for the vast majority of districts is they have to pass a referendum to take care of those issues.”
The state Department of Education plans to create a committee to explore a more equitable way of paying for school buildings and other capital expenses, Croonquist said.
In their latest education funding bill, lawmakers gave local school leaders more control over levying taxes for operating expenses, but that authority did not extend to capital costs.
Democrats said the latest changes guaranteed districts will have more money for students, but Republicans said they took the power to approve new taxes away from voters.
COMING TAX REQUESTS
Districts such as Inver Grove Heights, which failed to gain lawmakers’ approval to take part in the alternative facilities funding program, now must win over voters to fund building renovations or they must dip into their general funds.
Inver Grove Heights school board members are expected to finalize a $24.7 million request to improve security and renovate education spaces. Voters defeated requests for money to improve district technology in 2011 and 2012.
Schools Superintendent Deirdre Wells said Inver Grove Heights school leaders have saved money for maintenance — but not enough to meet the district’s needs.
“Our proposal addresses our deferred maintenance needs that enhance safety and security and improves our academic spaces,” Wells said in an email.
The district’s request is more than $6 million less than board members approved at a June meeting after a survey of residents found they were more likely to support a smaller request.
Besides requesting money to renovate existing facilities, districts can also ask taxpayers approve borrowing to buy land for new schools.
South Washington County board members approved three levy requests for November: two for operations and a third that would raise $8 million to purchase land.
School officials say new buildings will be needed to meet the district’s growing enrollment. The district tried to win possession of Crosswinds East Metro Arts and Science School in Woodbury, but the program in July won a last-minute reprieve from closing and will be operated this school year by the Perpich Center for Arts Education.
Districts also rely on capital levies to fund such purchases as new textbooks and computers. White Bear Lake school board members approved a tax request Aug. 12 that would raise $1.4 million annually for the next decade if approved by voters in November.
The request would raise $600,000 more each year, a 75 percent increase from the $800,000 the expiring levy now brings in.
District leaders say the money will pay for new software, textbooks and large musical instruments they expect will cost more than $1.8 million in the 2014-2015 school year.
OTHER FUNDING OPTIONS
School officials have other ways of raising capital revenue besides voter-approved capital levies and the alternative facilities funding program.
Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan schools will use money collected to lease educational space to fund the construction of an $11 million building to house early childhood and community education programs.
When complete, the new facility will replace two buildings the district has leased since 1994, said Jeffrey Solomon, finance director.
Funds for the new building will come from a “lease levy” that now raises $3 million per year, or $96 per pupil, to cover all space leased by the district.
The lease levy is approved by school board members and capped at $150 per pupil, Solomon said.
The lease levy is different from the $20 million annual operating levy school board members are asking voters to replace in November with one that raises another $10 million a year.
State law stipulates when school districts raise money for capital projects they can’t use those funds for other expenses like operations.
When Farmington leaders decided they didn’t need the new elementary school that voters approved a 2005 tax measure to fund, they decided to pay down $8 million in existing construction debt and fund building maintenance and upgrades.
Most of the $7.3 million worth of improvements to Farmington and Akin Road elementary schools should be completed when school begins next month. Projects include new heating, cooling and ventilating systems, larger classrooms, new kitchen space and roof replacements.
School leaders relocated from office space on Walnut Street to Farmington High School, saving the district $20,000 per year in lease payments.
In the past five years, Minnesota closed 1.5 percent of its nearly 2,000 school buildings, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Education. The state now has 40 fewer elementary schools and 29 fewer secondary schools than it did in 2006.
New funding for programs like all-day kindergarten and the growing demand for preschool may reverse those trends. Some districts are now scrambling to find space to meet their needs.
“It varies from district to district,” said Croonquist. “For some, it’s a huge issue.”