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3 Good Reasons to Vote Against the Operating Levy, Duluth News Tribune, Nov. 3, 2011

We all know children’s education is very important. But that does not give anyone carte blanche to use false or very misleading information in promoting a yes vote on an operating levy. Public officials, both elected and non-elected, have an obligation to be wise stewards of taxpayer money, to be a watchdog about how it is handled, and to assure that accurate information is being given to the public.

Public financing of educational institutions is complicated, but that only makes it all the more important information given to the public not be slanted or misleading. Data that have only the barest shred of truth, or that could even be conceived as biased, should not be used. Not only should this be a code of ethics for officials, but also, when it comes to elections, our laws bar publicly funded entities from advocating for or against any referendum by using misleading information.

Here are three good reasons why citizens should vote no to raising the operating levy for Duluth’s public schools:

The claim that the Duluth school district has cut $24 million in five years from its budget is a bunch of bunk. Minnesota Department of Education data clearly show that Duluth’s school budgets have risen slightly in the last five years. And U.S. Department of Education data show that education-funding increases in Minnesota have exceeded inflation for decades. The Duluth schools’ expenditures, per student, have doubled in the last 15 years. And in that time, Duluth’s funding per student always has exceeded the state average. We are now 10 percent above the state average in expenditures per student. And Red Plan building costs are not included in any of these figures.

The district is making it sound like its residents are a bunch of cheapskates who barely pay any taxes to support children. The claim is that the current operating levy of $365 puts us way below the state average in taxes paid. But this is only a very small part of the school property taxes we pay. This last year, the Duluth schools levied $24.6 million in local taxes for 8,900 students. That is about $2,800 per student, making us one of the highest-taxed districts, per-student, among the largest non-metro school districts. If any part of the levy passes on Tuesday, that will go up by another $300 to $600 per student, putting us near the top of the highest-taxed districts.

No one likes to even hear the name Red Plan anymore, but that is where much of the local taxes are going, and, like it or not, that won’t be changing for the next 20 years.

Everyone knows Duluthians’ incomes have not been keeping up, and our poverty rate is twice the state average. If our incomes aren’t going up at all, why should we be asked to pay more for a school system that has done little to contain costs? We are all working hard, and all our jobs are important. But the schools are showing no effective cost constraints; the district keeps expanding building plans and raising employees’ incomes. So why do we keep hearing that we taxpayers are the ones who have to sacrifice by giving up a latte or two a month when the district has done little to tighten its belt?

Public officials handling the financing of the public’s institutions must be held to an even higher standard of knowledge, and they must be able to explain clearly to the public what is going on. It is imperative the base level of financial knowledge used by decision-makers is accurate. The Duluth school district will have to learn to live within the means of the community. And if we can’t even get the facts right, we are going to get those decisions wrong.

Art Johnston represents the 4th District on the Duluth School Board.


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