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School boards could get authority to renew expiring referendums

Should voting on reoccurring, no-increase school district referendums be a thing of the past?

Given their overwhelming success rate and the costs incurred to hold elections, school administrators and board members think there’s a better way.

Sponsored by Rep. Cedrick Frazier (DFL-New Hope), HF292 would give school boards the authority to renew expiring, no-increase school district referendums without voter approval. The bill was held over by the House Education Finance Committee Thursday for possible omnibus bill inclusion, or for further consideration at a later date. There is no Senate companion.

While lawmakers have considered this proposal before, Frazier said it’s doubly important now given the budgetary impacts the coronavirus has had on school districts.

“We are under trying times and I think this is something that is needed right now considering the times we’re in,” he said. “We need to have more certainty around the finances for our school districts and the communities that they serve.”

Under current law, operating referendums are valid for up to 10 years, at which point a school board must seek voter approval to renew the referendum.

To qualify for an extension, the renewing referendum would need to be identical to the expiring one. Additionally, school boards would be required to hold a meeting prior to the renewal, open to public testimony, and then adopt a written resolution authorizing it.

Over the past seven years, there have been 104 referendums that met the criteria in this bill, all of them passed, according to Chris Lennox, superintendent for Mounds View Public Schools.

In addition to providing more fiscal stability and cost savings, advocates say the proposal would give districts similar authority over ongoing levies as city councils and county boards.

“School boards are elected by the same voters who vote for legislators, city councils, county boards and town boards. Why are school districts the only governmental body that has to pass a referendum for operating costs?” asked John Vento, a school board member for Robbinsdale Area Schools.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa) asked if districts could incur cost savings by coinciding referendum elections with the regular general elections.

While logistically challenging, the elections could be aligned, according to Jeff Elstad, superintendent for Owatonna Public Schools. However, there would still be costs associated with informing voters about the issue.

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