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Operating (Excess) Levy General Election, Nov. 8

                                                         VOTE  NO, NO,  NO

The November 8 general election will have a question (see ballot) on raising the excess levy for the Duluth Public Schools. School districts are required by law to be neutral and not to advocate for or against passage. But the Duluth public schools have done a massive distribution of fliers (Fast Facts) at open houses and PTAs, generated web pages, did two mass mailings to every person in Duluth, and have given numerous talks on this levy. Unfortunately, all the information being distributed has misleading or outright false information on the history and current status of budgets for the Duluth Schools. This information is painting a false picture that our schools are in dire straits, and that Duluth citizens don’t support our schools. The authors of this web page, two current school board members, strongly support education. But it is not right for the school district to use false information to promote passing this levy. The citizens of Duluth deserve to have accurate information. When false information is repeatedly used to give the insinuation that Duluth doesn’t support its public school systems that is an insult to Duluth. In the long run, such false information will result in continued erosion of support for the schools because it leads to a lack of community trust. And it is violation of campaign law.

It is imperative that accurate information on the levy be presented to Duluth and this web page attempts to do that.

Update: On Oct. 12, the District released a new version of the Fast Facts called Funding for Educational Programs.  That was mass mailed to everyone in Duluth on Oct. 21.  Though they made one correction and a couple minor corrections, there was little significant change, and they added more errors.  All the following mistatements are still there, though the school changed some of the wording to strech the truth a bit more.  And they have not released any statement stating that the original Fast Facts had errors.  Click here to see an annotated list of errors on their lastest attempt.


Debunking the myths

1. MYTH:State funding for schools has not kept up with inflation—in fact, it’s estimated to be 37% behind…

TRUTH: According to the Digest of Education Statistics, 2010, inflation adjusted K12 school expenditures have steady increased since tabulation were made in 1970. The following chart clearly shows that school spending per pupil has significantly increased, including in the last five years.  See: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d10/tables/dt10_193.asp  Update: on their latest version they changed the 37% to 18% and said they found that number on a website called minnesota2020. But they even got that wrong as that website puts the number at 12% over the last decade.  Of course there was no references given and all those numbers are wrong as the chart below shows.

Chart 1 (below)


2. MYTH:Minnesota has dropped from the top 8 nationally to 29th in per pupil funding.”

TRUTH: According to ranking in the Digest of Education Statistics, 2010, Table 193, Minnesota currently ranks 23rd in state spending in the U.S. Twenty years ago, Minnesota ranked 18th. This is not statistically significant. The District’s claim is a myth. Update: The Oct. 21 mass mailing corrected this by stating that per pupil spending in Minnesota is below the national average (this was the only correction on the Fast Facts).

3. MYTH:…most districts have cut budgets every year for more than a decade.”

TRUTH: According to data gathered by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), school district expeditures throughout Minnesota have steadily increased. This is also borne out by the U.S. Department of Education (see chart #1) which are inflation adjusted. No matter how you look at it, schools throughout Minnesota and the U.S. have had significant budget increases in the last decade, even counting inflation. The State of Minnesota supplies 75% of funding for our schools, and that amount was increased for 2012 by raising per pupil spending by 1% this year and another 1% in 2013.  

For the expeditures of every school in Minnesota, download expediture spreadsheets from MDE at: http://education.state.mn.us

Chart 3 (below)

4. & 6. SELF-FULFILLING PROPHESY: “The Duluth school district is projecting a $4–$5 million deficit for the 2012-13 school year which will result in more cuts.” “The deficit remains at about $4–$5 million.”

TRUTH: The Duluth school has not yet released even a preliminary budget for the 2012-13 year. If the past is any indication, they will project a $5 million deficit, not based on the previous year, but based on inflated expenditures and extravagant wish lists. If all the past deficits reductions had actually been real, the Duluth school district budget would have drastically declined over the years. Instead (see chart #7), the Duluth budget has steadily grown. The statement that not passing an additional excess levy will “result in more cuts” has clearly shifted the District’s position from neutral to campaigning. This is a violation of Minnesota campaign law.


5. WRONG:How Does Duluth compare?…The [Minnesota] average is about $936 per pupil.” “Duluth’s voter-approved levy is less than half that, about $365.60

TRUTH:  This makes it sound like Duluthians aren't paying much for school taxes--WRONG. For the 2010-11 year Duluth paid $24,641,189 in local school tax, or about $2800 per student. One of the highest rates in the state! This total amount includes the debt service (on the Red Plan), building maintenance, things like community education, and the operating levy, which is only a small part of the total. See Item #9 for more details.

But even if you only look at the operating levy portion of local taxes, the District still gets it wrong.

According to the Minnesota Department of Education compilation of all excess levies in Minnesota after the 2010 election, the average school levy is only $774. And this is high because some of those levies were not voter approved but automatically granted to districts in 2003, and this includes very lucrative suburban cities. See the below link.  If you compare the largest non-metro and neighboring schools districts, the average levy is only $533. Many neighboring districts, like Esko, Proctor, and Cloquet have near zero excess levies. So comparing Duluth to rich suburban school is very misleading.

Also, what they neglect to say is 85% of school funding comes from state income tax, state sales tax, and federal income tax, not from property tax. So these excess levy referendums are only the tip of the iceberg in how many taxes you are already paying to support K–12 schools in Duluth.

Also, the economy in Duluth is among the worst for larger Minnesota cities. Duluth’s poverty level is over twice the state average. People's income in Duluth has not went up, why should school’s be asking for more taxes from people whose income is diminishing?

The Duluth Schools are putting a guilt trip and scolding taxpayers with these insistent innuendo that we aren’t paying our fair share of taxes for our schools.  How about telling the truth for a change?

See the official MDE operating levy spreadsheet at: http://education.state.mn.us

7. MYTH:Over the past five years the District has reduced operating expenses by over $24 million.”

TRUTH: This is clearly the most blatant error in the paper. There has been no reduction of budgets by the District. In fact, according to the Minnesota Dept. of Education spreadsheets,  (http://education.state.mn.us) in the last five years, the ISD 709’s expenditures have increased by 6%. If you go back fifteen years, there is clearly a steady increase of 26% in the Duluth School budgets. And this is in spite of a 35% decrease in the number of students attending Duluth public schools.

Chart 7a (below)

Chart 7b (below)


If you look at the amount the Duluth School spends per pupil, the increase in the last fifteen year is quite staggering:

Chart 7c (below)

Note that none of the previous data has included any of the Red Plan building and debt costs. But if you include those numbers, the  spending per pupil is through the ceiling.

Chart 7d (below)


8. WRONG:Voters who don’t want to fund an operating or learning levy can simply vote no on all three questions.”

TRUTH: Voting NO, NO, NO is not going to remove the existing $365 levy. It will simply stop an additional increase. There is no ballot choice for voters to remove the current levy. This election is being spun to make it sound like Duluthians are finally being given a chance to vote. Unlike the refusal of the Duluth School to have any referendum on the Red Plan, we are now given a chance to vote for more tax increases—or more tax increases—or more tax increases.  If you vote yes for even the first question, that will increase your voter approved tax levy by a walloping 78%! 



9. MYTH:Among the largest non-metro communities, Duluth ranks 21st in total school property tax revenue.” [note that this statement is on the web site version of levy information].  Update: In the last mass mailing they inserted the words "general fund".  But this is still wrong  and misleading to people because our tax bill includes all property tax revenues. 


  • Duluth ranks 1st highest in the 35 largest non-metro schools in non-voter approved local property tax. (thanks to the Red Plan).
  • Duluth ranks 2nd highest among the largest schools in the state for highest debt per pupil (the highest is Minneapolis).
  • Duluth ranks 2nd highest in the 35 largest non-metro schools in total revenue.
  • Duluth ranks 9th highest in the 35 largest non-metro schools in total local property taxes.  If the operating levy would pass that would bump Duluth up to 3rd highest.
  • Duluth ranks 14th highest in total revenue among all schools in the state.
  • Duluth ranks 18th in the number of pupils.

Note that the above comparisons as based on two year old data (the newest Minn. Dept. of Education published).  In Sept., the school board passed their intent to raise the total local property tax paid to the school to $25,848,261.  This works out to about $2900 per student. This is a significant increase over two years not reflected in the above chart.  If the levy would pass, the above number would increase by about $500, making the total per student levy about $3400, or Duluth would be nearly the highest in the above chart.


10. MYTH:Duluth's total school property tax support in 2011 is less than it was in 1997.” [note that this statement is on the school's web site version of the levy information]

TRUTH: This is more misleading information. The school district obviously knows better than to put out such nonsense, but apparently it serves their purpose to advocate for passage of the levy by using the barest shred of truth, and then neglecting to tell the whole story.

It would be just as accurate to state that since 2002 the total school property tax has risen $17.8 million or 220% since 2003 (see the school’s chart at right). But obviously both of these statements can’t be true.

So what's the truth here? In 2001, the State of Minnesota Omnibus funding bill fundamentally changed the way schools were funded. This was an attempt to make school funding more uniform (due to court rulings) for students through out the state; and to reduce property tax (due to Gov. Jesse Ventura). So in 2002 the local property tax general fund levy was totally removed; and “excess [operating]” levies were largely removed and capped. In other words, the funding source for schools was shifted from local property taxes to the State budget (that in turn is funded by income and sales tax).

Looking at the chart, it is clear that this attempt to reduce property tax has failed. We probably shouldn’t be surprised here, but the property tax now is again as large as it was in 1997. PLUS we are paying more income and sales tax! If the District told the truth about this and about their steadily increasing expenditures, Duluthians would not support this operating levy.


Data sources for the above information are the U.S. Department of Education, the Minnesota Department of Education, and ISD 709 budgets. Charts, research, and writing of this website was done by ISD 709 school board members Art Johnston (4th District) with support of school board member Gary Glass (At Large).

Art Johnston can be contacted at ajohnston2@charter.net or 626-1997.


This report is also available to download in pdf format: Levy Information.pdf

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