ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesotans faced 39 school operating levy referendums on the ballot this fall, fewer than in any election since 1996. And they nixed one of every four proposals at the polls.

Chalk one up for taxpayers? Not exactly. Many school boards already had raised school levies on their own long before Election Day, without seeking voter approval.

The 2013 Minnesota Legislature gave school boards the authority to effectively go behind the backs of local taxpayers who decline to raise their school taxes.

“The argument is the school board is locally elected, and if the citizens don’t like what the school board does, they can vote them out of office and reverse the referendum decision that they made,” said Tom Melcher, director of school finance at the Minnesota Department of Education. “But I haven’t heard a lot of pushback.”

Educators still call it a “referendum,” but school board members now cast the only votes in deciding whether to impose an up to $300-per-pupil operating levy for five years without public approval.

“Given that the word is referendum, you’d think that yes, the levy authority is there because the voters approved it. But they didn’t, so we kind of have an oxymoron going here,” said Bob Porter, Minnesota Department of Education school finance specialist.

As school boards lined up to capitalize on their newfound power, the number of districts without operating levies quickly plunged from 39 to nine. Only a handful of small, rural district boards resisted the temptation to up the ante on taxpayers.

“What the governor and the Legislature have done is taken away decision-making authority that used to be in the hands of voters, instead giving it to school boards, allowing them to raise taxes or impose taxes unilaterally,” said Jonathan Blake, a Freedom Foundation of Minnesota analyst.

Altogether, 123 school boards have taken advantage of the $300 provision to initiate, increase or convert their levy levels, Minnesota Department of Education figures show. Schools defend the process as a way to equalize educational opportunities for districts with a smaller property tax base, mainly outside the Twin Cities metro area.

“It was basically done to solve an equity problem because there are districts with nothing or a very small amount of a levy next to a district with a $2,000-per-pupil levy,” said Greg Abbott, communications director for the Minnesota School Boards Association. “So it was an effort to try and make things more equitable from district to district.”