Column: School board seeks more cash but wisely lets voters decideDuluth School board member Judy Seliga-Punyko is correct that it’s unfair for the school district to have to submit levy increases to voters while other governing bodies can vote such tax increases on their own.
By: Virgil Swing, For the Budgeteer News
Duluth School board member Judy Seliga-Punyko is correct that it’s unfair for the school district to have to submit levy increases to voters while other governing bodies can vote such tax increases on their own.
But the five board members who recently voted instead to seek voter approval of two special levies were politically wise to do so rather than use state permission to raise the money without referenda.
The big reason is a huge red flag still flying six years after the board adopted it: The Red Plan.
That hugely overpriced and over-ambitious project was adopted without a public vote — and board members are still paying for that mistake.
By far the most sweeping change in the school district in recent decades, the Red Plan closed a high school and other schools, built new ones and overhauled many others as it changed the face of Duluth schools.
It needed a public vote. But the board, using a state law that its House sponsor said wasn’t designed for such changes without a referendum, imposed it on the district.
There are other reasons why the board shouldn’t now use another state law that would let them impose a $300 per-pupil levy increase without a referendum:
• The board already voted an 11.9 percent property tax levy increase for this year. Many voters still remember that.
• Five of six special-levy requests in recent years have been voted down, and that pattern would likely continue if the board again imposed a tax hike.
• Besides the two referenda on the November ballot, the board voted for a $212 per-pupil increase allowed without a referendum.
The options in all this would take more words than are available to me to explain, but they include an expiring special levy and a possible $1.1 million from state coffers. I hope school officials explain all this to voters in an understandable way.
In discussions so far among board members and special-levy supporters, that $1.1 million in state money which might go to Duluth has often been discussed like it is manna from heaven.
But it comes from Duluth district taxpayers. That’s not literally true, but the special help from state government for various local governments (which flowed freely in the recent DFL-dominated legislative session) all comes from taxpayers.
The $212 per-pupil increase mentioned above is available only to bigger districts such as Duluth because of presumed higher costs. And districts in the seven-county Twin Cities metro area can levy $424 per pupil under that rule, and those counties contain half the state’s population.
So Duluth’s relatively small $212 in per-pupil aid and $1.1 million in other state money realistically represent local tax dollars captured by St. Paul and then returned to us — real dollars from our wallets, no matter what you hear.
I was serious when I said school districts shouldn’t have to seek voter approval for special levies while other governing bodies can impose them.
I don’t know where that tradition comes from, but Minnesota’s not the only state that has it.
However, if lawmakers ever give school boards the same freedom of other governing bodies, I hope Duluth voters realize they can expect taxes to keep going up and up unless they stop electing former teacher union members and other public employee union members to the board.
Many times in this column I’ve urged the Duluth district to cut back unaffordable retiree benefits that have helped create financial constraints. So far I’ve heard only vague promises of significant reforms along those lines. District voters should also keep that in mind.
A recent action that was largely pooh-poohed by school officials also deserves our consideration: one of the three big bond-rating agencies downgraded the district’s credit rating.
The bond raters at Moody’s cited the district’s budget reserves, which have fallen from $15 million in 2010 to $3.6 million as of December. They also noted that part of the repayment of Red Plan bonds was to come from the sale of unneeded property, most spectacularly the still-unsold Central High School.
School Board members and administrators have tough financial hurdles ahead, most of which they brought upon themselves.
Budgeteer opinion columnist Virgil Swing has been writing about Duluth for many years. Contact him at email@example.com.