Spending Our Money to Get More of our Money
By Andrew Richter
Here comes District 281 for our wallets!
It may be March, but Robbinsdale Area Schools District 281 is already gearing up for November.
The district is hoping voters will approve all or a combination of three potential property tax levies: a renewal of its existing operating levy, an increase of that operating levy made possible by recent legislative changes, and a technology levy that would support several nascent programs in the district.
Just what we need; more programs!
To that end, the school board heard the results of a poll conducted by the Morris Leatherman Co. that gauged residents’ willingness to approve each of the potential taxes, two of which would result in increased property taxes.
Just over three-quarters of district residents expressed support for renewing the existing operating levy, 58 percent supported increasing the operating levy by $2.7 million and 61 percent supported a $2.5 million technology levy, according to documents supplied at the board’s March 3 work session. 49 percent of likely voters polled expressed support for all three.
Um, how many people were in this “survey?” Where was my survey?
William Morris, President of Morris Leatherman, noted that there was a large swath of voters who might not feel particularly engaged with the district in one direction or the other. Around 18 percent of those polled were “unsure” about what they liked most about the district, for instance, and the survey identified 56 percent of respondents as “persuadable” with regard to a tax increase, rather than staunchly for or against one.
Morris explained that the large amount of noncommittal responses could be a problem because a decisive portion of the electorate could still be persuaded one way or the other. “We have found that, while nature may abhor a vacuum, opponents love them,” he said, adding that those “vacuums” can be filled with “juicy” bits of information that might change a referendum result.
Opponents love them? What is this idiot talking about?
Morris said that the phrase “laser toilets” still lingers in the Wayzata School District’s popular lexicon due to a recent technology levy there. A levy opponent coined the phrase to denigrate the district’s plan to install automatically-flushing toilets – which use a laser to determine when the user has moved away – and other high-tech features with levy money.
The burden is on the district to show WHY this levy is “needed” and where the money will go. If they fail at that, it isn’t the fault of levy opponents.
District 281 may have a similar problem: several years ago, it briefly employed taxis for student transportation. Several school board members at the work session mentioned that they still hear about the taxi use and Morris Leatherman’s polling encountered several respondents who mentioned it, too.
“The term ‘laser toilets’ has never been dropped from the folklore out there,” Morris said of Wayzata. “The taxis are something that’s ingrained in your folklore now.”
Folklore? If the taxis were there at taxpayer expense how is it then folklore? Isn’t it fact?
An effective argument for the technology levy, Morris said, would be to emphasize that the programs it funds could enable district teachers to teach more effectively.
By doing what??
The survey showed that District 281 teachers are held in high regard amongst residents: 82 percent of survey respondents gave teachers and other instructional staff a “favorable” rating, compared to eight percent “unfavorable.” “The tie-in to the teachers is key,” Morris said. Encouraging teachers to promote the technology levy, he later added, would be an effective way of drawing public support.
Let me translate that; get union support! Of course the Board is supposed to represent the people not the unions but 281 often blurs that line.
Evoking envy of neighboring districts, many of which already have technology levies in place, was another strategy Morris outlined in his presentation to the board. The Wayzata, Osseo, Hopkins, and Fridley school districts all have similar technology levies, according to documents supplied by District Executive Director of Technology Dennis Beekman.
Typical local government; copy each other! Monkey see, monkey do!
Of those four, Hopkins has the highest levy of 7.69 million dollars per year and Fridley has the smallest at $651,000. Survey respondents were gauged on their support of a hypothetical 2.5 million dollar technology levy for Robbinsdale Area Schools. Of the 14 school districts in Hennepin County, only four lack a technology levy, including District 281.
State-wide, 34 of 332 districts have a technology levy in place. The majority of those districts are located in or near the metro area. Around 41 percent of survey respondents, regardless of whether they ultimately support the technology levy itself, said they were “much more likely” to support the levy when surveyors presented them with the argument that it would offer technology initiatives similar to neighboring districts.
“It’s not as effective an argument as it once was, but it’s still there,” Morris said.
The district will now have to decide how much money it wants to ask for from its residents. The operating levy renewal would mean business as usual for residents’ property taxes, while the increased operating levy and new technology levy would result in tax increases.
Morris Leatherman’s survey indicates that 18 percent of respondents would approve an increase of six dollars per month in property taxes due to a higher operating levy and 17 percent would approve an increase of four dollars per month from a technology levy.
So how about the other 65%?
“You want to make the decision early enough,” Morris said.
The board will discuss the survey results and weigh the pros and cons of different levy amounts at its next work session, said Supt. Aldo Sicoli. The next work session is April 8.
A second “brush fire” survey will be conducted four to six weeks prior to election day. A brush fire survey is a more targeted version of the general survey in March and would gauge specific ways the district could sell the referendum to blocs of voters.
The initial March survey will cost $14,000-16,000, depending on the number of questions asked, and the brush fire survey will cost $7,000.
So $23,000 of our money will be spent to get more of our money!
Voting on the potential referendum would take place Nov. 4.