The Alexandria School District is proposing an operating levy, with the question being put before voters on Nov. 5. The district went without one for the last five years, putting it in the minority among Minnesota school districts.

Previous years’ elections resulted in 240 of the state’s 331 school districts having a voter-approved operating levy this year, said Michael Schwartz, an education specialist from the Minnesota Department of Education. That amounts to 72.5% of the districts in the state that have gone to voters at the ballot box for funds to help operate schools.

That percentage is likely to grow. There are 27 other rural school districts asking for referendum increases this year, which is roughly 10% of all rural districts in Minnesota, said Fred Nolan, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association.

“Alexandria is not alone this year,” he said, when referring to rural districts asking voters for levies.

Nolan, a retired superintendent of the Foley Public School District, said rural districts tend to be more frugal than their counterparts in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

“They tend to watch all their pennies and try to get by with what they have,” Nolan said. Metro districts aren’t extravagant, but they do tend to have more programs, such as orchestra in elementary school, he said.

The Alexandria school district is proposing a 10-year, voter-approved operating levy with a phased-in approach, where the amount taxpayers would pay increases incrementally over the first three years.

If approved, the levy would be for $375 per student in the 2020-21 school year, $485 per student in the 2021-22 school year and $595 per student in the 2022-23 school year. It would remain at that level for the remainder of the 10-year period.

Should the referendum pass, that $595 per student figure for years 3-10 of the voter-approved operating levy that doesn't kick in until 2022-23 would be below the state average from this past year, which was $624 per pupil unit according to data from the research department of the Minnesota House of Representatives.

Most districts that go to voters for an operating-levy request gain approval. Over the last four years, districts that asked voters to renew an expired or expiring referendum tended to have a passing referendum about 95% or more of the time, Schwartz said.

Voters in the Alexandria district approved an operating levy in 2004. Ten years is the maximum number of years an operating levy can be in effect, and it expired in 2014.

The largest amount Alexandria is asking for in years 3-10 of the operating levy, $595, is less than half what average metro districts asked for per pupil unit last year, Nolan said. The average metro district sought $1,063 per pupil unit in 2018, he said.

Voters in several other area school districts have passed operating levies at a higher per pupil rate than what Alexandria is seeking, according to information the Alexandria school district mailed to its residents recently. In the mailing, the district also points out it doesn’t fare well in general education funding, ranking 293rd out of 328 Minnesota districts.

The general education revenue funding formula is provided mainly through state aid payments and is the primary source of general operating funds for school districts. Statewide, approximately two-thirds of school districts’ total revenue comes from this program. Add federal revenues and other grants and that figure climbs to nearly 90 percent for Alexandria, the district said.

Other districts

West Central Area, Sauk Centre, Ashby, Parkers Prairie, Brandon-Evansville, Minnewaska and Osakis all had voter-approved operating levies in 2018-2019, according to data from the Alexandria district.

“An operating levy is a good idea because the state and the federal government have not kept up with promised spending and inflation regarding education funding,” Osakis Superintendent Randy Bergquist said.

Brandon-Evansville Superintendent Don Peschel said the district is in pretty good shape because its voter-approved operating levy doesn’t expire until 2025.

“(Operational levies) obviously help districts with funding and just general operational expenses, which continue to increase like anything else, with inflation and just the nature of things,” Peschel said. “That’s understandable, what the Alex district is doing.”

Operating levies provide the district with financial stability, balance the district budget, add programming and help maintain class size, which is something the Brandon-Evansville district values, Peschel said.

“(Levies) value students and families because they help us sustain programs and help us plan for our future,” he said.

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For questions about the Alexandria School District referendum, call 320-762-2141, extension 4223, or email referendum@alexschools.org. More information, along with a tax impact calculator, can be found on the project’s website, https://www.alexschools.org/referendum.