MSBA’s 2017 referenda analysis

MSBA’s 2017 referenda analysis


On Election Day, we had 41 districts going out for a bond or capital project levy request. 28 of those 41 were approved (a 68% approval rate). For fall bond issues, this is the highest approval rating since 2014. However, when the failing bonds from the rest of the calendar year are figured in, 38 of 67 bond and capital project levies were approved for the year. That’s a 56.7% approval rating. Better than last year, but not a strong showing when matched up with the average 68% approval ratings in the past 10 years.

Large requests

This fall we had six bond requests that were $100 million or more – by far the most over that $100 million mark than ever before. Only Northfield lost their $109 million request 3,467 to 4,436. Otherwise, Anoka-Hennepin passed the largest bond ever in the state at $249 million. And this was no nail-biter – it was approved by a 2 to 1 margin 16,579 to 8,675. Actually, the five $100 million plus requests all passed very handily (St. Louis Park’s passed by a 5 to 1 margin).

Capital project levies for technology

Eight of the 10 capital project levies for technology passed this year, most by a good margin. It shows people understand that to prepare students for the workforce, they need to know how to use technology. Rockford Area’s request that failed was fairly close. The only request to not gain good approval was Greenbush-Middle River, which lost 257-754.

Ag tax credit and its role in bonds

During the first part of the year, without the ag tax credit, 19 districts asked for bond help. Only 5 passed. (a 26% passage rate – lowest ever). After the ag tax kicked in, 28 of 41 requests passed in November, as well as 5 of 7 in August and September. That’s 33 of 48 requests being approved after the ag tax kicked in. (69% passage rate).

Some could say that’s a major factor, but I’d say it’s a minor factor. It did help, but if you look at the list of school districts that failed with bond referenda in November, 11 of the 13 that failed were GREATER MINNESOTA DISTRICTS. The bigger problem for small, rural districts remains – they don’t have the tax base that an Edina or Anoka-Hennepin has to spread the costs of a bond referenda. Until that is equalized, rural districts will continue to face a harder time passing bonds.



Operating levies did very well this year, with 44 of 53 districts passing an operating levy request. (83% passage rate). Only three times since 2000 have operating levy passage rates hit 80 percent or above. It wasn’t quite the 90.4% passage rate record of 2015, but pretty close.


Twenty of the 53 districts were simply renewing the operating levy at no tax increase to residents. ALL 20 PASSED. This continues a trend where renewals are becoming an almost automatic approval.

Close votes

There were three operating levies that either passed or failed by small amounts. Pipestone’s request for a $250 operating levy increase failed by just ONE vote. Triton’s request failed by just 24 votes 455-479. The other one was Mankato’s operating levy that passed 2,878 to 2,849 –29 votes.

Again with the discrepancy between urban and Greater Minnesota districts

If you look at the nine districts that failed to win approval for their operating levy, EIGHT of the nine were in Greater Minnesota. Only Rockford Area in the metro failed on an operating levy. This continues a three-year streak where Greater Minnesota districts have a harder time passing operating levies.

Some may say that the increases they were asking for were too much. But then I look at Onamia: They asked for a simple $52 increase in their operating levy. It went down by more than a 2-1 vote.

Multiple questions

How did multiple questions on the ballot work – for a majority, it worked. Five of seven districts asking multiple operating levy questions passed both. Six of seven passed at least one question. Splitting requests into 2 questions didn’t help Pipestone or Red Wing. In Red Wing, both went down. Pipestone’s second question for an increase went down by 1 vote.


Overall, this was a good year for schools. But the nagging difference between suburban/urban and Greater Minnesota passage rates is still there.

It also shows that districts continue to do better in odd-year referenda elections. If we look at 2010-2017, the odd year approval percentage for operating levies is 79% in 2011, 86.4% in 2013, 90.4% in 2015 and 83% this year. For even years, the approval percentage is 56% in 2010, 73% in 2012, 76% in 2014 and 69% in 2016. Odd years pass at least 5% higher and sometimes up to 15% higher than in even years. Why? You don’t fight the clutter of national politics, so you have a better chance of telling people WHY you need the money. If people don’t know about the levy and see it on the ballot, they’re more likely to vote NO. If they know what the money is for, they’re more likely to vote YES.

Lastly, the ag tax credit did seem to help a bit. However poor tax bases in many Greater Minnesota school districts are holding down approval rates. In those districts, even small amounts can have a big impact on taxes.




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