Election Night Tough for SEE Districts. Off-year elections can always be tricky to assess. They normally aren’t part of a national wave (although the 2021 elections in the midst of the pandemic certainly deviated from that pattern), which often makes results contingent on the case being made locally by school districts to their voters. That is always refreshing because it facilitates a meaningful discussion between school districts and their voters. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the results will reflect the district’s request and we witnessed a fair share of that on Tuesday.
The overall results for the operating requests were especially disappointing. Of the 27 questions, only 12–or 44%–passed. Looking at the results more closely, it is difficult to discern a pattern as to why some districts were successful and others weren’t. There were large metropolitan districts that passed their levies and large metropolitan districts that failed. There were rural districts of all sizes that passed and rural districts that didn’t again without detecting a discernable pattern. The largest ask (and received) of the night came in Richfield, where the district was successful in passing a 2,202 per pupil referendum that will put them at the cap going forward.
Three SEE districts went to their voters for operating levy increases and all three were unsuccessful. There was only a 36-vote margin in New Prague that prevented that district from passing a $450 per pupil increase. Chisago Lakes was looking for a $355 per pupil increase and St. Francis was looking for a $325 per pupil increase. When c0mpared to the larger increases being sought by other districts, it is especially disappointing as it’s clear the SEE districts made every effort to meet their voters where they are and not go to them with something unpalatable on its face. Still and all, it was not enough and each of these three districts will return to the drawing board.
One item that may have complicated the efforts to pass operating levies this fall is the historic increase in education funding passed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor during the 2023 legislative session. Don’t get me wrong. Every one of those dollars is appreciated and has been put to good use, but given the past three decades of erosion in the basic formula when compared to inflation, the increases simply weren’t enough to meet the needs of many districts. When one looks at the funding levels of the SEE districts that went to the voters this fall, it is apparent that these districts have not been the beneficiaries of a number of fundring streams to a great degree and also have the disadvantage of having low levels of property wealth. Property wealthy districts in most cases have been able to combat the underfunding of the basic formula by passing operating levies, often at considerable amounts. SEE districts simply do not have those same advantages and that showed up again last night.
The results of the bond and capital project levies were slightly more promising, at least at face value. 45 districts went out to meet building and capital needs and 30 of these districts were at least partially successful. The 67% success rate is mitigated a bit when one looks at the total questions of 62 (due to a number of districts putting more than one question before the voters) with 35 passing. This drops the passage rate in terms of total questions to 56%. Add to that the fact that a number of these questions were renewals of existing capital project levies with no increase and again the results don’t look as overwhelmingly positive as the initial analysis would suggest.
As was the case with the operating levies, it was not a good night for SEE districts. Four SEE districts put a total of six questions before their voters and of them, only Buffal0-Hanover-Montrose was successful. Medford and Stewartville both had two questions go down to defeat and St. Francis lost a capital projects question.
From SEE’s perspective, it is impossible to look at last night’s results with anything other than utter disappointment. Since its inception, SEE has constantly reminded legislators and policy makers of the distinct disadvantage its members face due to low levels of property wealth that make it extremely difficult to pass operating levies and bond questions. Unfortunately, those pleas have fallen upon deaf ears and there have not been significant improvements to the equalization programs since the 1990s. That is going to have to change or we are simply going to see more of the same and SEE districts will continue to fall further behind districts with higher levels of property wealth in terms of per pupil funding.