The tax referendum on the November ballot

The school district’s levy referendum is the most important question for Duluth citizens when they vote on November 7th. Approval of the referendum will, for the next ten years, add $5.29 million a year more onto the debt already borne by local taxpayers.

The biggest concern I’m hearing from the public in this campaign is the growing burden of property taxes. The Duluth school district has contributed significantly to the burden, taking for granted the civic-minded generosity of Duluthians. In a survey commissioned by the school district a decade and a half ago, an overwhelming number of people agreed with this statement: “I’m willing to invest in education by paying higher taxes, provided the schools continue to operate efficiently and offer high-quality educational programs.”

Citizens are looking at their tax bills now, and at our school district, and wondering if that bargain is being kept. The district has operated less than “efficiently” over the past several years. Despite all the money the organization has spent, Duluthians see a lot of ongoing problems and little measurable gain in education.

When deciding whether or not to approve more of our money going to ISD 709, Duluth taxpayers should be aware of one provision in the education bill recently passed in the state capital, granting school boards a new taxing authority. Boards now have the power to renew any property tax levy one time for the same amount and duration. I haven’t found any story about this in the local media, but there is a good report in the 6/11/23 edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, headlined: “School boards may now renew property tax levies under new Minnesota law.”

Our school board has been the most aggressive in Minnesota when it comes to taking away the public’s right to vote on use of its own money. The largest school consolidation project in the state’s history–Duluth’s Red Plan, which cost nearly half a billion dollars with bond interest–was pushed through without a vote. The demolition of Central High and the authorization to build two new multi-million dollar buildings on the Central campus (at a cost of $39.5 million, with bond interest) was also pushed through with no public vote. Over the past ten years, the school board has also used two taxing authorities to move more than $7 million a year of tax levy money that was once voter-approved to “board-approved.”

$5.29 million x 10 equals $52.9 million over ten years. If the public approves this referendum and the school board renews the levy a decade down the road, taxpayers will be on the hook for a total of $105.8 million over the next twenty years. The district currently has another ten-year tax levy for $5 million a year. When that levy expires in 2029, the board will certainly renew it as well, for another $50 million for ten years.

ISD 709 just received $6.56 million of new, additional funding from the state. District administration and the school board are blaming the fact that COVID relief money is running out for their continued shortfalls in revenue.

Blaming the cessation of temporary funds is an intellectually dishonest argument. It is comparable to someone living well for a while from a bonus he or she received from his or her job, then demanding that the bonus be continued. The individual spends all the cash, increasing his or her expenditures, and then demands that the extra money remain in place as the baseline compensation for his or her work.

Despite the vast amount of money spent by our public school district (more than two billion dollars between operations and facilities in a decade and a half) and a tax levy that has spiked by $32 million during that same time period, several more big tax liabilities are building up in the near future for taxpayers. When considering this referendum, the bottom-line questions for the public are: Are you ok with your tax bill going up again and do you trust the school board to make good choices with more of your money?

We are being told the bulk of this referendum money will be directed toward upgrading technology. Not long ago, our school district spent a lot of money on classroom technology. New SMART boards, alone, cost $3 million (not counting installation): 600 boards at $5000 a piece. The school board claimed it was putting our district on the cutting edge of 21st century technology, but only four years after the Red Plan was officially completed in 2013, district officials were already talking about throwing SMART boards in dumpsters.

During the school board’s 6/12/17 Business Committee meeting, the district’s Director of Curriculum and Instruction said that “because of budget constraints (more accurately described as budget mistakes) over the years, we haven’t been able to support technology investments that were included in the Red Plan.” He described this situation as “serendipitous” in one way, because this failure to plan properly put administration in a position to maintain a new plan, going forward. “One piece of that plan,” he said, “would be moving away from SMART boards.”

In response, school board member Art Johnston pointed out that we’d spent millions in the long-range facilities to purchase and install SMART boards: “It was questioned at the time about whether or not that was a wise investment; I was one of the people who questioned it…We invested in cutting edge technology, and now we don’t need it anymore?”

Some SMART boards were only four years old at the time and district officials were already talking about throwing out technology that had cost taxpayers millions. The people of Duluth are generous by nature, but no one should just approve this referendum without looking with a critical eye at the way our money has been spent in the past.

Duluth citizens now have a say, however. We were given no vote on any part of the Red Plan, including on the purchase of SMART boards, but this time the school board is in rare form. No avenue existed for our elected officials to just take our money, so they are giving the public a rare chance to vote. Don’t skip the election on November 7th. Exercise your birthright to vote and make sure everyone you know does so as well.

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