Voting on a school levy? Here's a line of inquiry
Pioneer Press, Larry Dowell (guest editorialist)
10/20/06

This fall, many school districts will ask voters to support levy referendum questions on the ballot. Deciding whether to support or oppose a referendum that boosts school funding through property tax increases can be difficult.

Education funding is so complicated in Minnesota that the running joke is that only two or three people understand it.

But for many people, school funding is an emotional issue because they have children or grandchildren in the system.

As the local Chamber of Commerce for the St. Paul/east metro area, our organization has been asked by many to weigh in on the important issue of school-tax issues. Rather than support or oppose the various levy referendums, we decided to develop questions that will help taxpayers clarify why the request is being made and what the money will fund. Our goal is to help community members engage in a meaningful conversation with leaders of their local school districts.

Some questions we suggest:

1. Specifically, what would the funds be used for to maintain programs currently in place, provide new or expanded programs/services, or something else?

2. How many other operating and/or capital levies are now in force for the district, and what is their amount/duration?

3. What is the length of this proposed levy?

4. Will other school district levies be reduced to partially offset this proposed levy?

5. What proportion of the districts' total operating budget will the levy equal?

6. What is the district's current and projected fund balance? How will that fund balance be affected if the levy passes? If it fails?

7. To accomplish the goal of the referendum, how many district personnel will be retained or need to be hired? If new staff needs to be hired, how will funding for these positions be maintained after the levy expires?

8. Is enrollment in the district increasing or decreasing? If decreasing, will any part of the levy be used to offset revenue lost because of declining enrollment?

9. Should the levy question pass, what would the impact be for a homeowner with property valued at $150,000? $250,000? $300,000? $350,000?

10. Are other local units of government proposing tax levy increases this year?

11. If you add in all of the proposals from the other units of government, what is the expected total tax increase on a home or business owner?

12. Has the district done anything to coordinate its levy proposal with the other local government units?

13. Does the district have any plans for operational changes that will improve efficiency (for example, collaborative purchasing at a regional level or contracting for non-instructional services)?

14. Are there any legislative changes the district wants or needs to allow it to improve efficiency?

15. If the district is experiencing declining enrollment, what are the long-term plans to address the decrease in state funding (since schools are funded on a per-pupil basis)?

16. How will success be measured at the end of the levy? Will it be linked to increased student achievement?

17. What does the districtplan to do if the levy fails?

With the multitude of candidates and issues on the ballot this November, we hope this information is a resource for all citizens, and helps make the task of deciding to vote "yes" or "no" on school district levy referendums a bit easier.

Larry Dowell is president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce.

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