The Tuesday, Nov. 6 election has an overwhelming national focus that may be obliterating views of important local issues. This fall, 35 Minnesota school districts are presenting their voters with critical property tax levy questions to fund school operations. In addition, 25 school districts are presenting ballot questions for school facility improvement or construction or major equipment purchases.

As important as the election of senators, congressman and a governor are for the future of our state, the decisions on school questions are equally important to the future of the students in these districts.

The ballot questions that ask voters to approve bonding for school facilities and, more importantly, local operating levies to fund daily school functions, lay bare the challenges schools face under the most recent history of school funding in Minnesota. The annual increase in the expense of educating students on a student-by-student basis (basic formula operating revenues) has routinely exceeded the allocation by state lawmakers over the last 10 years while per-pupil funding increases generally fell at or below 2 percent.

During the past 10 years, most school districts compensated for short funding by cutting programs and services to students and/or spending reserves. In the long run, most school districts relied on voter-approved property tax levies to supplement the differences. All but a few of the 336 districts have a voter-approved property tax levy in place.

Local property tax increases approved by district citizens are now a vital part of Minnesota’s school funding. These tax levy questions started out as a local option for districts to fund schools above and beyond state funding at a time when the state provided adequate, equitable and uniform funding common to all Minnesota students. Now the passage of local school levies is critical to providing all students across the state with comparable and adequate programs. Property tax is not a fair measure for supporting schools if only because some districts have a poor tax base and others have a rich base, making it easier for wealthier districts to pass operating levies.

The Rush City school district provides an important example of how the system works. On Nov. 6 Rush City will present its voters with an operating levy question for the third time in three years. Previous questions were defeated. Rush City has reduced programs, services and increased class size to balance its budget. At the expense of students, the district has been forced to make do.

The consequences of a yes or no vote are clearly listed on Rush City’s web page and published material. Out of 336 Minnesota school districts Rush City schools rank 298th in per-pupil funding. All other policy and political issues aside, the impact of the state funding formulas and local referendum votes falls on students. Either in this election or future elections students throughout Minnesota will depend on the support of these local tax questions.

Rush City isn’t alone. Other districts served by ECM newspapers that are running operating levy votes to boost revenue include Braham, Forest Lake, Milaca, Robbinsdale, Rockford and Waconia.

There are very significant educational funding and policy issues that will face state and local school leadership over the next several years. There will be proposals for educational innovations, teaching and learning reform and tax relief. There will be meaningful debate on how we attract, recruit, hire, certify and retain teachers and other educational personnel. There will be calls for funding formula simplicity balanced against adequacy, equity and fairness for all students. Vouchers, school choice, post-secondary access and affordability, will all find their way to the issues of how children are educated.

We encourage voters to assess their candidate’s knowledge, expertise and position on these critical education issues. We encourage voters in districts with school program and facility funding issues on their ballot to know the background to those questions and the needs of their local districts. Become educated before casting ballots.

There is one test that each of us should pass before we vote on school levy questions as well as choosing state leadership to serve our students in future years. The test has two questions.

What will be the immediate and long-term effect on students if we vote yes or no to an operating levy question? What will be the effect on students if we elect candidate A but not candidate B?

The most important issues in this election may not be hotly debated topics of national politics nor the bitter differences found in party policies and controversial candidates. The important issues may well surround the effect of our choices on our students tomorrow morning and each day thereafter.

– An opinion of the Adams Publishing – ECM Editorial Board

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