The last post hinted at a possible civil rights issue that voters and possibly the courts may have to face. I’ve been making inquiries about it. Already the ACLU has indicated that while it is too big for their plate they might be willing to offer an Amicus brief should someone bring the issue to court.
Here’s how I put it to them when I requested they consider coming to Let Duluth Vote’s aid.
The Duluth School Board has been given the go-ahead by the Minnesota Dept of Ed. to levy to build the biggest school building project in state history ($293 million – $407 million including interest) and to do so under new found statutory authority so that it can proceed without offering the bonding for a public referendum. This has caused a year-long controversy and several legal challenges have been considered relative to integration laws (The new District will drop its current integration plan while dividing the District into two halves with dissimilar racial makeups)
There is also a possible violation of environmental rules, and possibly issues concerning undue influence given to the project’s construction manager, Johnson Controls Inc. These issues while serious may not be of interest to the ACLU. However, there is one serious civil rights concern. We believe that proceeding without an election is a violation of the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment regarding voting rights.
While recent changes (over the past 20 years) have given all Minnesota state school board’s the authority to levy for certain kinds of building projects without resort to a referendum the School Boards of three cities are given extra authority to bypass voters. This is unequal treatment. The three school districts in question are Minnesota’s three “Cities of the First Class.” They are Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth.
About 15 years ago two of the cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, were given special statutory authority to levy without referendums after state legislators in the metropolitan area grew fearful that voters might not vote for school building projects. Duluth was not given special treatment in this way.
However, the Duluth School Board’s lawyers made use of three separate state statutes to find a similar authority for Duluth’s School Board and the Minnesota Dept. of Education conceded this new understanding of the law. We assume that this new found levying authority applies to Minneapolis and St. Paul as well as Duluth.
The special statute written for Minneapolis, as amended, gives it the right to levy $15 million dollars annually for school building projects. Minneapolis has four times as many students as Duluth. This new found authority greatly expands this taxing authority for all the cities of the first class. Duluth’s School Board has begun levying taxes for its building plan that will average $20 million annually. This is a much greater per student taxing authority than either Minneapolis or St. Paul Boards have enjoyed up until now. If Duluth can levy four times as much per student than Minneapolis was permitted to levy; then under the new application of the law Minneapolis should be able to levy about $60 million annually without going to the voters. This potential levy authority strikes us as so excessive as to be clearly beyond the legislative intent of the original law drawn up for Minneapolis. The laws that apply to Duluth’s school district now apply to all three Cities of the First Class vastly increasing their taxing authority.
The reaction in Duluth has been predictable. It is estimated that between 60% and 75% of the population is outraged. This has not stopped the School Board despite countless appeals to compromise or scale back the building program. There is no school board election until next year so there is no electoral remedy available to voters to stop the building project. This can only be accomplished through a legal challenge.
The use of these laws (one of which ironically was put in place to help fund districts which were implementing integration programs) makes a clear distinction between voters in Cities of the First class and all other Minnesota voters. Rural and suburban voters retain their right to vote on excessive or poorly thought out building plans while voters in the Cities of the First Class have lost this right.
There is at least one other ancillary issue. There are several townships that are part of the Duluth School District but not part of the City of Duluth. Their voters have been denied a vote on Duluth’s School referenda under these same statutes even though they are only meant to apply to Cities of the First Class.