Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

3 of 6 school referendums fail in Minnesota special elections

Drone footage of a high school in Duluth.
Duluth Denfeld High School on March 27, 2022 in Duluth. The district was asking to raise $5 million in property taxes each year to fund technology and security upgrades as well as new technical educational programs.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Voters across Minnesota headed to the polls on Tuesday for a special election. Six schools districts had referendums on the ballots.

The results are mixed. Ellsworth Public Schools, Norman County East and Martin County West got the money for building upgrades that they asked for, although Martin County voters rejected a request for an auxiliary gym.

School leaders in Pine City, Fergus Falls and Duluth are regrouping after their referendums failed.

In Duluth, the district was asking to raise $5 million in property taxes each year to fund technology and security upgrades as well as new technical educational programs. It failed by 453 votes, according to preliminary results from the district.

In Fergus Falls, the district asked to raised property taxes to build a new school for grades 3 through 5. It failed by 921 votes.

School board chair for Duluth Public Schools Jill Loflad and Fergus Falls Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Drake joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: We all know it's a presidential election year, and come November, voters will decide who will represent them from the White House, and Congress, down to state and local offices. But this week, voters in six Minnesota school districts had a decision to make sooner rather than later-- whether to help fund new building projects or other initiatives with local property tax increases.

The results are in today, and they're mixed. Ellsworth public schools, Norman County East, and Martin County West got the money for building upgrades that they asked for, although Martin County voters rejected a request for an auxiliary gym. School leaders in Pine City, Fergus Falls, and Duluth are regrouping after the referendums failed.

But we're going to hear from Fergus Falls superintendent in just a few moments about what happened there. First, we're going to take a look at Duluth, where the district was asking to raise $5 million in property taxes every year to fund technology and security upgrades, as well as new technical education programs. That failed by 453 votes, according to preliminary results from the district.

School board chair Jill Lofald is on the line to talk about it. Thank you for joining us. We appreciate it.

JILL LOFALD: Thanks for having me. It's good to be able to talk through this so soon.

CATHY WURZER: Thanks. Thanks. This is the second time, evidently, the Duluth Public Schools went to voters to ask for this extra money for technology. I was a little surprised to see that you went back a second time in one year. What were the reasons for that?

JILL LOFALD: So that is uncommon. And, certainly, it was uncommon for our Duluth community as well. But I think through discussions, and a look at the results from the November election, losing that by 291 votes-- and it was a high voter turnout and lots of things on the ballot.

And so we kind of looked and listened to some of our community after the election, and they said they didn't feel they got enough information about our technology ask. We had two questions on the ballot in November. One was for money to refinance, but give us a little bit more money for teachers, counselors, social workers-- those things that community easily like to come out and vote for.

And the second question, again, was the technology. So I think, in a way, we thought that the community was telling us that they wanted more information. And so we wanted to capture the momentum of voters. And we wanted to also just understand that a May date was going to be beneficial in a lot of ways.

CATHY WURZER: OK. So you asked the second time here. And I'm wondering, now that voters said "no" a second time-- and I believe they also said "no" back in, what was it, 2018, 2019, something similar-- what are the next steps for the Duluth Public Schools?

JILL LOFALD: And it's statewide or even nationwide-- technology referendums tend to be one that continually suffers from not a lot of community embracing the need for more technology. So we were caught in the pandemic without having devices for our students. And so that really catapulted Duluth into more technology needs than we were really budgeting for in the last years.

And with that failed referendum in 2018, we continued to be kind of behind in funding technology. And so we bought the devices, we got them into our students' hands, but we didn't have a lot of extra money to plug in for all those other things we were asking for.

So yeah, now we have to kind of take a step back and say, OK, we didn't get the money to fund technology. We've already used Esser money, which is now running out. And how are we going to continue this 21st century learning and all the robust things we were visioning for technology? How are we going to do all of that?

CATHY WURZER: Can you scale back a little bit? I know that some of the ask was about cybersecurity improvements in the district. That seems to be pretty important, especially given the experience other school districts have had in Minnesota with hacks. So is there a way to pay for that, perhaps, and then maybe look at some of the other tech a bit later on?

JILL LOFALD: Well, we're going to bring you on board and ask you to help us make those decisions, because you're spot on. Cybersecurity is very important. And we really focused on that in November and then felt that maybe the community didn't quite understand the risks.

And when you sit on a board like I've been for seven years now, we just recently saw the bill for insurance for cybersecurity. That's a huge ask for school districts to fund is to have the right amount of insurance to have a cyber security policy. And I don't think our community understands that that money is coming, then, out of general fund money, which, then, is also going to pay for everything else schools need.

But yeah, we can certainly scale back our dreams and our visions for what we could have done with technology monies and reduce the asks. Cathy, that was one of the reasons we went in May instead of waiting till this coming November with a bigger election is we really wanted to have time, whether we won or lost, to make a firm budget for the 2025 fiscal year coming up. So we have some tough decisions to make.

CATHY WURZER: Yeah, it sounds like you have some work ahead of you there. I appreciate your time. Thank you, Chair Lofald, for taking time to talk with us.

JILL LOFALD: Well, thank you. And have a great day. And you learn a lot from losing. And we're going to use what we learn and still continue to have hope that we will provide a great education for our students here in Duluth. So thank you, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Jill Lofald is the board chair of Duluth Public Schools. We're going to go to Fergus Falls right now, where unofficial results show yesterday's ballot question failed by 921 votes. It would have raised property taxes to build a new school for grades 3 through 5 in the Fergus area. Joining us right now is superintendent Jeff Drake. Thank you, superintendent, for taking the time.

JEFF DRAKE: Yes. My pleasure, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Tell me about this question that was on the ballot. What were you trying to do?

JEFF DRAKE: So the proposal was to replace two elementary schools that were built in 1939 with a new third through fifth grade elementary school that would have been just over 100,000 square feet. And, really, our goal was to design that new school to reflect modern teaching practices.

Some of the things the two 1939 buildings lack are spaces that were planned for special ed supports, occupational therapy, some of the mental health supports that you see now in our day-to-day work with students, English language learner spaces, spaces designed for reading and math supports through Title I and AdSys programs. And so as you think about the progression of services offered in public education, it's changed greatly since those schools were designed and built 85 years ago.

CATHY WURZER: And in terms of student numbers, were those schools pretty crowded? Would the new school have allowed a little more room, in a sense?

JEFF DRAKE: We certainly would have had a little bit more elbow room. The space would have really been noticed with the support of our fine arts programming. Currently, it's not one of the two 1939 buildings, but our students taking orchestra and band have to be bussed to our high school when they do their large group rehearsals because we don't have that large group rehearsal space at Cleveland School.

And that was a big part of it. Another crucial piece was just the location of the proposed new school. Cathy, we have a really interesting partnership with US Fish and Wildlife, and it's called our prairie science class. But with our fourth and fifth grade students, it's optional. But those students can choose to spend half a day out at the prairie.

And we have four classrooms out there. But transporting them from the two other schools out to the prairie ends up being 35 to 40 minutes round trip every day, where the location for the proposed new school would have been right across the highway from the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center and would have really cut down on a lot of that transportation time sitting on a bus. And we would have been thrilled to have them use that time sitting in the classrooms, engaged in the learning with their instructors.

CATHY WURZER: Do you think, then, superintendent, voters-- you laid out a case for what you wanted to do with the money, what do you think voters were saying when they rejected the referenda yesterday, that McKinley and Adams Elementary Schools were just fine? What do you think the bottom line here is for voters?

JEFF DRAKE: Yeah, so that's part of it. Use what you have, fix what you have. That's been good enough for prior generations. It should be good enough for this generation.

And I think, Cathy, the other really key component to this is just some real tax sensitivity. And so in the community, people have experienced rising taxes through their utilities-- that was voter-approved-- but a sales tax increase to put a new community pool in and some other amenities at one of the city parks-- and so there was definitely some pushback to anything that would have raised taxes.

Now, keep in mind, with this proposal on a market value of $250,000 on a residential home, people were looking at a $100 annual tax increase, or roughly $8 a month. So we did take every effort to make it affordable. But, definitely, there was resistance to any kind of a tax increase.

CATHY WURZER: Final quick question for youd what's next? Next steps?

JEFF DRAKE: That's a great question. And I would say that I'm unsure at this point. The board will convene. We will talk about the feedback that we've received from the public.

We will explore our options. But certainly, our continued commitment is to provide safe and friendly stimulating learning spaces and a great experience for our students as we hope to create an environment where all students can reach their full potential.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Superintendent, I appreciate your time today. Thank you so much.

JEFF DRAKE: Thank you, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: We've been talking to Jeff Drake. He's the superintendent of the Fergus Falls Public Schools.

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