School levies passing in a weak economy? An odd reason

I’m trying to answer some 2009 questions before 2009 ends. Here’s one: Why did Minnesota school districts have such a relatively great year passing operating levies when the economy was so bad?

Fifty-nine districts asked taxpayers for funding during a year when unemployment jumped and housing prices fell. Forty-two districts — 71 percent — got one or more requests approved, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association.

minnecon.smallicon.gif

On its surface, it doesn’t make sense. The levy plans should have ended up casualties of the worst economy in decades. In 2008, only half the districts who went to taxpayers found success.

What happened in 2009?

“Many of the levy requests were renewals which meant that the property tax impact was minimal, or even no increase,” said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts.

Many districts also broke their requests into two questions — with the first targeted to what they needed to get by the next year, the second to avoid cuts in following years, added Greg Abbott with the Minnesota School Boards Association. “Many of those districts passed at least the first question.”

In some places, the district’s survival depended on it. Voters last year effectively ended the McLeod West District by killing a levy request. “Heron Lake-Okabena and Ashby probably would have looked at consolidation or major cuts to programs if the levy hadn’t passed,” said Abbott.

“People know the state isn’t funding schools.They also know two years from now, schools may face a state funding cut for the first time ever. So the only option is local support.”

Beyond that, there’s the interesting phenomenon that districts simply do better in odd-numbered calendar years.

Here’s data from the Minnesota School Boards Association. “Total” means the number of Minnesota school districts seeking operating levy money and “% pass” is the percentage of those districts that got one or more approvals.

levypassing.JPG

In an even-numbered year, said Abbott, election news is jammed with articles about national and statewide races. By the time November rolls around, the millionth story on the presidential election is written. People know more about Sarah Palin’s hairstyle than whether or not a local school district is trying to pass a referendum.”

That hurts school votes. When people enter the polls to vote for president, “they may not even know the school is having an election. And if you don’t know what the referendum is for, what is the chance you’d vote to increase your taxes?”

Contrast that to odd-year elections when a school referendum may a town’s only vote. “Without the state and national election clutter, people who vote are more informed on what the levy is for,” Abbott says. “And usually, informed voters are more likely to vote Yes.”

1/ 4 UPDATE: My MPR colleague Tom Weber put together a longer and more complete list of levy votes, including bond levy votes, following the November election. You can find it here.