Eight districts seek levies

Twenty years ago, about half of Minnesota's public school districts had operating levies. Now, 90 percent of the state's 340 school districts have levies.

Twenty years ago, about half of Minnesota's public school districts had operating levies. Now, 90 percent of the state's 340 school districts have levies.

The number has risen steadily over the years, spurred by a variety of factors. Changes in the state's funding mechanisms have had an impact, as has declining enrollment and inflation.

Eight local school districts join nearly 70 others in seeking approval for operating levies this year.

Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City, Benson, BOLD, Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg, Minnewaska Area, Montevideo, Renville County West and Yellow Medicine East are all seeking help from their voters on Tuesday. The size of the levies ranges from $200 to $1,444.

In most cases, they are seeking funding that will help them maintain curriculum and programs that state aid and local property taxes no longer fully cover.


"We do have a long tradition of local control," said Tom Melcher, director of program finance for the Minnesota Department of Education.

"These are an opportunity for school districts to raise revenue above and beyond," Melcher said.

The state provides nearly $5,000 per student, about 80 percent of local school funding, through its general education formula. The state sets local property taxes to provide the remaining 20 percent.

When school boards feel they need more money beyond that to properly run their districts, they can turn to the voters to approve an additional levy to pay for school operations.

These local levies have been used for a variety of things over the years. For rural districts, the additional operating levy can help maintain programs when enrollment numbers fall. Most state aid is connected to enrollment numbers.

No clear trends

Additional operating levies have increased steadily over the years, and there doesn't seem to be a single trend influencing them, Melcher said.

The state froze the education formula for two years before providing a 4 percent increase a year ago. However, that didn't seem to spur an unusual number of new levies in the past few years, he said.


The largest number of levy votes, 188, took place in 2001, when the state changed its school funding mechanism, Melcher said. In the new plan, the state cut local property tax levies and began paying more state aid from the state's general fund. It also took over a portion of the operating levies for districts that had them.

That opened the door for many districts to ask their voters to add operating levies since local property taxes would be going down.

Before 1993, operating levies were paid entirely by local property taxpayers. That system tended to favor districts with high property values, where the cost of an operating levy was spread over more properties.

After a lawsuit, the Minnesota Supreme Court ordered the state to level the playing field by providing some additional aid to low-value districts with operating levies.

"Then they could go to the voters and say the state is going to pay for part of it," Melcher said.

In the years following that change, though, there was no clear uptick in the number of levy votes.

John Widvey, a retired superintendent and the acting superintendent in RCW, has been through a number of operating levy votes.

Years ago, levy amounts remained stable, even if enrollment fell, he said. Now, operating levies fluctuate with enrollment.


The additional state aid does make it easier to pass a levy, he said. In the case of RCW, 52 cents of every dollar in the new operating levy will be covered by state aid.

Too many rules?

Mandates and inadequate funding for them have helped lead to an increase in operating levies, said Greg Abbott, associate director of communications for the Minnesota School Boards Association.

The state and federal government require school districts to provide certain services. In recent years, they also face increased demands to conduct standardized tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Those increasing demands coupled with rising costs due to inflation have stressed school budgets, Abbott said.

"The only place to turn is the voters," he said. "They don't have a lot of options."

Without operating levies and the additional revenue they provide, school boards are faced with difficult decisions, Abbott said.

"They only things they can cut are things they are not mandated to provide," he said, and those are often the most popular programs. Things like smaller class sizes and full-time kindergarten often aren't covered by state aid, but research shows they can be important for children's futures, Abbott said.


"It really comes down to what is the tipping point for your district," he said.

"I think the trend has been that most districts have asked voters for larger amounts than they have in the past, because it's tough to make ends meet," Widvey said. "They want to maintain their excellent educational programs."

What To Read Next
Get Local