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Break for schools: Law change means levies can't be taken away

School officials in Minnesota no longer have to worry that successful levy referendums will later be overturned by voters.

In a case based largely on the Frazee-Vergas School District, the Legislature this year removed the option of so-called reverse referendums from state law.

The law previously provided for a new operating levy referendum vote with a petition signed by just 15 percent of registered voters.

School district supporters, including the Minnesota Association of School Districts, had hoped to convince the Legislature to raise that voter threshold to 30 percent, said Greg Abbott, director of communications for the association.

Instead, lawmakers in the Minnesota Senate unexpectedly opted to remove the provision entirely. The House agreed in conference committee and the measure passed.

It's a matter of both fairness and planning, Abbott said.

Lawmakers decided it was not fair that cities and counties could raise levies without voter permission, but school districts could not.

That made school levy referendums "the only place people could vote no," Abbott said.

The possibility of a reverse referendum taking away new tax dollars made it difficult for school districts to plan for the future, Abbott said.

"You can't plan if you're counting on $600 per pupil, and the next year it's not there," Abbott said.

After trying and failing for several years, the Frazee-Vergas School District finally passed a $1,000-per-student, five-year operating levy referendum in November 2007.

The referendum passed by a wide margin, 1,600 votes to 1,006 votes.

But referendum opponents found a rarely-used clause in the law that requires districts to put the operating levy back on the ballot with a petition signed by 15 percent of registered voters.

Residents submitted a petition with 719 signatures calling for the measure to be put back on the November ballot in 2008.

On the advice of its legal counsel, the school board rejected the petition because it failed to meet all of the requirements required by Minnesota law.

The petition was supposed to have a summary paragraph on each page, to ensure that people knew what they were signing. And the wording was deemed vague and misleading.

A Becker County District Court judge agreed with the school district, denying the petitioners' legal request that the question be placed on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Frazee-Vergas Superintendent Deron Stender helped spearhead the effort to get the legislation passed. He was out of town and unavailable for comment Thursday.

He worked closely with Minnesota Rep. Bud Nornes (District 10A-Fergus Falls) and Sen. Dan Skogen (District 10-Hewitt).

Nornes, a Republican, said he was willing to carry the bill in the House, but school officials wanted the petition level raised to 50 percent. That was too high for him, so he wrote the bill requiring 30 percent of registered voters.

"That made it harder to achieve, but still doable, if someone wanted to push it," he said.

"It was received quite favorably in committees," he added. "It was a surprise to me when the Senate went the other way and completely removed it. I thought that would never pass."

But at that point it was out of Nornes' hands.

"That's the way it ends up," he said. "Once you get to conference committee (where House and Senate versions are merged into one bill to be sent to the governor) you lose all control."

The measure was used only rarely, Nornes said.

"It's not like we took something away that was used often and now it's gone," he said But, he added "had they been successful in Frazee, others may have gotten on the bandwagon in other parts of the state."

The Senate bill was carried by Skogen, a DFLer, and mirrored the House version.

The motion to get rid of the measure completely was made on the Education Committee by Sen. Claire Robling, a Republican from Jordan.

"She said 'if it's not being used, maybe it's not needed then,' and made a motion to eliminate it all together," said Skogen, who observed the action while waiting to testify.

"I was surprised it was actually repealed, though we had a pretty good desire this year to relieve school districts of financial mandates."

Oscar Birkeland of Frazee, one of the leaders of the petition drive, said he was out of town and didn't follow the legislative process at the time, but isn't very happy about how it turned out.

"For some reason, they wanted to do that," he said of the lawmakers. "I guess maybe I'm real old-fashioned -- I think citizens should have some rights. Citizens pay the bills and should have some say in it."