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Third of Minnesota school districts holding referendums

In 2007, East Grand Forks residents passed a $500 per pupil operating levy with 61 percent approval, one year after defeating the same measure.

The reason for the reversal, EGF Schools Superintendent David Pace maintains, is that the school district became specific -- rather than general-- about how the money would be spent.

The same strategy is being employed as the school seeks renewals of that $500 levy and the $126 levy approved 10 years ago ina vote Nov. 8.

"It will go toward maintaining what we have -- more electives, more college-credit classes and maintaining smaller class sizes," Pace said.

If they're approved, school property taxes will not increase because they're an extension of existing levies. In today's anti-tax climate, however, that's no guarantee. All four of the operating referendums in Minnesota this year have been defeated.

If both levy renewals pass, they will generate $1.2 million annually for the school district, about $700,000 from local taxes and $500,000 from state equalization aid.

The annual cost to the owner of a $100,000 property would be $131. Farmland isn't taxed. A big year for referendums

One-third of Minnesota's school districts are holding an operating referendum Nov. 8.

Greg Abbott, spokesman for the Minnesota School Boards Association, said operating referendums have become more widespread because of flat funding from the state.

"In the last 10 years, there's been only one biennium where schools gota 4percent increase," he said. "In the other eight years, they've got nothing for increases. It's not like the 4 percent increases every year like in the past."

The state also has delayed payments in recent years, in effect borrowing money from schools.

Aid also shrinks because of decreasing enrollments, which is prevalent in rural school districts, Abbott said.

About one-half of Minnesota's 113 referendums are renewals, which "have a good track record of passing because they don't increase taxes," Abbott said.

They've also been more agreeable with voters than bond issues because the terms are shorter, the taxation amount is less and the money goes toward education and not brick-and-mortar.

Grygla asks for big hike

While most of the referendums are for the same amount or modest increases, Grygla voters will vote on an operating levy that is eightfold. The ballot calls for replacing a $126 levy with one for $1,000 per student.

"It isa big jump," Superintendent Galen Clow said. "But the average levy in the state is $935.

"The big reason for it is declining enrollment. We get less funding from the state because it's on a per-pupil basis."

Grygla enrollment has fallen by 60 students --a 25 percent drop -- since 1998. Most northwestern corner schools have experienced a similar enrollment trend.

If approved, the $1,000 per pupil levy will mean an additional $146,000 a year for the school-- with $69,000 coming from local taxes and $77,000 from state aid.

On a $100,000 parcel, the annual tax would be $232.

Clow is also superintendent at neighboring Goodridge, which approved a $1,750 per-pupil levy in 2003 and renewed it in 2010, both with 75 percent approval.

He expects Grygla to also continue its history of supporting referendums.

"If it didn't pass and enrollment continued to decline, we might end up with just an elementary school," he said.