A teacher at Hilltop Elementary in Henderson leads her charges back to class following an afternoon recess. Hilltop is part of the Le Sueur-Henderson School District, which has a pair of referendum questions on the ballot in November. Such school referendums are the target of a campaign launched by Farmington lawmaker Pat Garofalo.

With about a third of Minnesota school districts seeking voter approval this fall for levy extensions or expansions, a Republican legislative leader is planning to actively oppose passage of several of them.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, a Farmington Republican who is chairman of the House Education Finance Committee, told Minnesota Public Radio that school districts have as much revenue as they need.

“Unfortunately, we have some school boards that are using people’s generosity to engage in the fleecing of taxpayers, and that’s just not acceptable,” Garofalo said.

Mankato Democratic Rep. Kathy Brynaert, a longtime member of the Mankato Area School Board before her election to the Legislature, said Garofalo’s rhetoric is out of line.

“I find that statement totally unacceptable from a state representative,” said Brynaert, a member of Garofalo’s committee. “Obviously he’s impugning people’s integrity when you say something like that.”

Brynaert sees his promised attempt to defeat referendums as a violation of democratic principles and the idea of a separation of powers. And she said the idea of school boards “fleecing” taxpayers doesn’t make sense because voters have to approve any tax increases at the ballot box — a standard not required of other elected bodies.

“School boards — of all local government institutions — are held to the highest standard,” said Brynaert, who spent nearly 12 years on the Mankato board. “They actually have to go to the public for a vote. So to question their integrity is totally inappropriate.”

Garofalo said his opposition to referendums this fall stems from the fact that schools received an increase in state funding even as lawmakers dealt with a $5 billion budget shortfall.

“When you’re making these additional expenditures at the statewide level, the property tax is not to be used to go back for a second bite of the apple,” he told MPR, predicting other Republican lawmakers would join him in fighting referendums where he believes school boards are abusing the process.

Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, a rural Glencoe Republican whose district includes Le Sueur County and parts of Sibley County, wouldn’t remark on Garofalo’s opinion.

The freshman lawmaker, who spent 16 years as a school board member, said he’d offer his opinion if he were asked about a specific district’s referendum. But Gruenhagen doesn’t plan to speak out in a global way against referendums.

“Generally, I believe in local control — just as a general rule of thumb,” he said. “... I think it’s between a district and its voters.”

And Gruenhagen isn’t sure the sentiments of elected officials hold much sway with citizens when they approach the voting booth. As a school board member, he voiced his thoughts on proposed referendums and they passed or failed “regardless of what I said.”

Sen. Al DeKruif, a member of the Senate Education Committee, doesn’t plan to follow Garofalo’s lead in attempting to defeat referendums.

“I’m not going to get involved in local school referendums because I think every board and every district should decide what they’re going to do and what they’re not going to do,” DeKruif said.

The Elysian Republican, though, echoed Garofalo’s opinion that school districts fared well in the 2011 budget battle between the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

“To be honest with you, I think we did a pretty good job in sending more money to schools,” DeKruif said.

Many superintendents were worried there would be outright cuts in school funding. Instead, funding was increased by $50 per student and certain state mandates were eliminated, he said.

“I’m beginning to wonder if it’s ever going to be enough,” DeKruif said. “... When I only hear criticism and nothing good, it makes me wonder.”

Brynaert, however, said the additional $50 per pupil was pursued by Dayton to offset the costs to school districts of dealing with the state’s decision to delay a large portion of state payments to schools. The delayed payments will force many districts to resort to short-term borrowing, which means shifting education dollars for students to interest payments for banks.

Brynaert said the session also brought additional state-imposed requirements on schools, such as a new evaluation system for teachers and principals that will cost money to implement.

“So that ($50) may be claimed more than once already,” she said.

Le Sueur-Henderson School Board Chairman Henry Endres agreed that most of the $50 in additional per pupil aid will be eaten up by interest payments.

“A $50 increase is better than nothing or better than a reduction,” said Endres, a 10-year veteran of the board. “But to say that’s a solution to all our problems is probably stretching it a little bit.”

State-aid payments to schools haven’t kept up with inflation in the past decade, he said, and it’s more difficult to get large operating levies passed in rural school districts than it is in more affluent suburban districts. Many rural schools also are facing a shrinking tax base and declining enrollments.

“By and large, you see most districts in rural Minnesota struggling to get by,” he said.

Which is why Endres is bothered by Garofalo’s willingness to paint all districts with the same brush. Le Sueur-Henderson will have two questions on the ballot Nov. 8 — one to boost the district’s current $300 per student operating levy to $650, and a second to create a $150 per pupil levy to create a school for fourth- and fifth-graders focused on science, technology, engineering and math.

More than 130 referendums are planned around the state, the most in a decade, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association. They vary greatly in size, with some districts simply looking to renew existing operating levies with no increase and others looking for hundreds of dollars more for each student.

Endres hopes local voters will look at the facts surrounding their specific ballot questions rather than listen to what he sees as “inflammatory statements” from outside. In Le Sueur-Henderson’s case, he thinks voters will see a history of responsible fiscal management.

“Our teacher contracts are not extravagant by any means,” he said. “There just hasn’t been the funding available from the state to maintain our current programs.”

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