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Brainerd district has plenty of company

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When Brainerd School District voters head to the polls Nov. 8 to vote on the district’s operating levy referendum questions, they won’t be the only Minnesota taxpayers being asked for additional money for schools this fall.

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More than a third of school districts in the state will be asking voters for more funds this fall, the highest number since at least 2001. 

Greg Abbott, spokesman for the Minnesota School Boards Association, said 133 districts have said they will have levy referendums in conjunction with city or county elections.  

However, the number of school levy issues could increase. Abbott says there’s a Sept. 16 registration deadline for districts planning solo elections.

The number of districts with levy elections will be the highest in 10 years. There were 101 levy elections in 2007 and 188 such elections in 2001.

The Minnesota Education Department reports that as state per-pupil funding has failed to keep up with inflation since 2003, schools have become more reliant on local taxpayers.

Charlene Briner, a department spokeswoman, said the high number of levy requests could also be tied to state leaders’ decision earlier this summer to help fill a $5 billion budget hole by delaying payment of about $2 billion in education money.

“I think that’s reflective of the difficult financial situation districts find themselves in,” she said of the levies.

Brainerd Superintendent Steve Razidlo said the large number of districts also seeking local support this year doesn’t surprise him. 

“It says a lot about the tough times that a lot of communities are in and the perception held by many school districts that the state has not kept pace with inflation or the local district need.”

Razidlo said there is a growing disparity among districts that are able to pass higher levies, as compared to those that have little or no local funding. He said even if voters in the Brainerd School District approve both levy questions — a renewal of the district’s existing $199.24 per pupil operating levy and a second levy question asking for an additional $200 per pupil — the total $399 per pupil levies are far lower than the state average operating levy of about $936 per pupil.

“In our case here in Brainerd, we’ve tried to look at what we think we need in order to stay as whole as possible,” said Razidlo.

According to the MSBA website, the largest operating levy requests are from some Twin Cities metro area districts, but also many smaller outstate districts. 

• Anoka-Hennepin: A renewal of an existing $1,044 per pupil levy, plus two additional questions, one for a capital project levy for technology and a second question for an additional $260 per pupil operating levy.

• Badger: A $500 increase in its existing $1,500 operating levy to $2,000 per pupil. 

• Climax-Shelly: A renewal of its $1,931 per pupil operating levy.

• Delano: An increase from $426 per pupil to $990 per pupil operating levy.

• Edina: A renewal of a $400 per pupil levy, as part of its existing $1,800 per pupil levy, as well as a $4.5 million capital levy for instructional technology. According to Edina School’s website, the district currently spends $122 per pupil on technology, while neighboring school districts like Hopkins spends $719 per pupil for technology, Minnetonka spends $655 per pupil, Eden Prairie spends $637 and Wayzata spends $545 per pupil. 

• Fulda: A renewal of its $1,901 per pupil levy and possibly an additional $400 per pupil operating levy. 

• Northfield: An increase from $1,269 per pupil levy to $1,584 per pupil and a capital project levy renewal.

• Royalton: A $700 per pupil operating levy. There is no current levy in place. 

• Steven-Argyle-Central: An increase from $1,000 per pupil to $2,000 per pupil operating levy.

• Stillwater: Three questions that include a $500 per pupil increase to a $1,465 per pupil operating levy, a $982,300 capital projects levy to expand student access to technology and a $18.1 million bond to improve science facilities and update heating and cooling systems. 

• Tri-County School: An increase from $800 to $1,200 per pupil operating levy.

• White Bear Lake: A renewal of a $1,580 per pupil levy.

Steve Lund, director of business services for the Brainerd School District, said these figures demonstrate the glaring inequity in school funding. He said Edina Schools are relatively close in size to Brainerd Schools. Edina is seeking to renew $400 of its total $1,800 per pupil operating levy, along with adding another $500 per pupil level of funding for technology, for a combined total excess levy of $2,300 per pupil, compared to Brainerd’s current $199.24 per pupil levy.

Lund said if Brainerd was funded at Edina’s level, the district would have an additional $15 million of annual funding. Edina also has only about $6 million of property, or seasonal/recreational/agricultural properties, exempted from local operating levy taxation. In contrast, Brainerd has about $1.4 billion exempted from local operating levies. This means there are fewer residents — many with lower incomes — than those in Edina paying more for local school funding.

If Edina’s technology levy passes, Lund said that district will receive $4.5 million above its basic funding for technology opportunities for its students, compared to Brainerd’s annual funding of $150,000 for technology. 

“However, all students are measured each year by the exact same comprehensive exams,” said Lund. “I completely agree that the state should have uniform student expectations and accountability, but what I have yet to completely figure out in this position is why school districts can’t have the same uniformity in financial expectations to achieve these results. It frustrates me to no end to see this inequity in education funding not only continue, but grow a system of the haves and have-nots in education across the state.”

In addition to Brainerd schools, the Pine River-Backus School District is also holding a Nov. 8 general election referendum. Pine River-Backus voters are being asked to renew a $1 per pupil operating levy so the district can access nearly $80,000 in state equity funds and to approve a $4.26 million building bond referendum used to expand programs and physical space at the school. 

This story contains information provided by The Associated Press. 

JODIE TWEED may be reached at jodie.tweed@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5858.

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Becca Clemens
After graduating high school in 2004, I attended Central Lakes College in Staples, MN for 2 years where I got a diploma in Communication Art and Design. I then transfered up to Bemidji State University in, you guessed it, Bemidji, MN. In the spring of 2009, I graduated from BSU. Then in the fall of 2009 I got a job at Echo Publishing, a sister company to the Brainerd Dispatch.
(218) 855-5878
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