Fate of Duluth school levy left in voters’ hands

By Adelle Whitefoot

A resolution that would have protected the district in the event of a rejected November referendum failed Thursday after a 3-3 split vote by the Duluth School Board.

If the resolution was approved a portion of the money the district receives for each student as part of voter-approved operating levy funds would have been shifted to board-approved, lessening the potential loss if voters reject a request to maintain the current operating levy amount.

The state allows up to $300 per student to be moved in such a way, which would have left only $71.78 per student as voter-approved — the only amount that voters would have been able to reject in November. The move would not have increased taxes.

The board decided to put its faith in Duluth voters this fall allowing them to vote on the full $371.78 per student in November, which equates to about $3.4 million per year.

“I was really encouraged by the numbers that we saw last week and in subsequent conversations that I’ve had with parents, family and staff,” board member Sally Trnka said. “It seems like the community members are not only in favor of maintaining the current funding but also increasing it. So it would be hard for me to vote yes for the board-approved $300 because I think that takes the power away from the taxpayers of our community.”

Board member Nora Sandstad said she felt the timing wasn’t right.

“Doing it three months before asking for more money is not a smart move in my mind,” she said.

Sandstad also said that if voters fail to approve the referendum renewal she will be the first to bring up this issue again. According to Minnesota State Statute, if a district has no voter-approved referendum the board has authority to authorize a new board-approved levy of up to $300 per student for up to five years.

“My understanding is that if they fail to do so, and they don’t do their jobs in supporting the district, we as a board can do our job in December or January or anything through September of next year and act on this $300 at that time,” she said. “We would lose a year of revenue and we would lose a significant number of staff in that hit, but I’m willing to give the voters an opportunity to do the right thing here and to position ourselves in a better place in messaging a referendum by not voting on the $300 this evening.”

Board member Josh Gorham said though he has confidence the community will support the referendum renewal, he didn’t want to take the chance that something could go wrong.

“I believe this community elected me to this chair because they believe in me and support me to make the best decision,” he said. “I believe (approving the resolution) stabilizes things for our students and staff to provide that education.”

Board member Jill Lofald agreed with Gorham, which is why she supported the resolution.

“I do have confidence that if we allow our voters and constituents to vote for the $371.78 they will approve it, but we’re not guaranteed smooth waters between now until November,” she said. “I could see myself sitting in my teacher’s lounge in November when the levy fails and we just let go of some monies that the state gave us the power to control.”

Board members David Kirby, Trnka and Sandstad voted against the resolution and Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, Lofald and Gorham voted for it. Board member Alanna Oswald was absent.

The current operating levy is set to expire this year, but the board approved a resolution Thursday indicating its intent to move forward with an operating levy referendum in November. It’s likely the district will not only ask voters to maintain the current levy amount but also increase it. How much of an increase the district will ask for will be decided in August.

In 2013, the district asked voters for an extra $200 per student for five years, which equaled about $1.8 million — $1.3 million went to managing class sizes, $250,000 to update curriculum and $250,000 for achievement gap strategies. A survey presented to the board last week showed 58 percent were in favor of approving an additional $575 per student for 10 years, which would provide the district an additional $5 million per year.