Minnesota voters approved fewer than half of school levies this election

Rochester Public Schools is looking to make $10 million in cuts after an operating levy was rejected by voters last week.

The referendum failed by a small margin, falling about 300 votes short. The technology levy would have funded security upgrades and online learning, which district leaders say would have freed up money for classrooms and covered the budget shortfall.

"This was kind of a kick in the gut," said Superintendent Kent Pekel. 

Pekel has overseen around $21 million in cuts since taking the job two years ago, as the district has faced massive budget shortfalls. He blamed voter’s rejection of the levy on a multitude of things, including low voter turnout. He also said their messaging over the details of the proposal could have been better.

"Rochester has to decide about the aspirations we have for kids and frankly, the needs of this workforce," said Pekel. "This is a global center for healthcare and science and when you compare the funding we receive from our local community, it doesn’t compare favorably to districts of our same size in the metro."

According to the Minnesota School Boards Association, only 12 out of 27 districts seeking operating levies in this election were victorious. Many that failed, with the exception of Brooklyn Center and Farmington, were outside the Twin Cities metro. 

Pekel says he is asking the school board to extend an existing $17 million operating levy, which the board can do one time without voter approval thanks to a new Minnesota law, but that’s only a temporary fix. He has recommended they return to the voters next year with a second attempt.

Pekel says 85% of the district's budget is wages.

"It's not because we can’t manage our money. It's because we have costs that are unavoidable," he said.