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Cuts loom as Perham school levy defeated

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"We can survive one more year," said Perham School Board Chairman Jim Rieber, "but we're starting to take the core of our system apart."

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Perham school district voters defeated the levy referendum by a narrow margin of 1,746 votes to 1,622 votes. The measure would have injected revenues of about $500,000 a year into the school's budget - barely enough money to keep the district in the black for the next three years.

With the failure of the referendum, school officials may need to cut as much as $1 million over the next two years.

Rieber was dismantling voting booths at 8:20 p.m. - minutes after the vote totals were confirmed. But in his mind, he was dissecting and dismantling the school system's budget.

"We have no choice but to start planning for the next levy referendum," said Rieber. "There is no way we can get by without an increased levy."

For the second consecutive year, Perham school officials were deprived of additional operating revenue.

Last year, a presidential election with one of the highest voter turnouts ever, a referendum seeking about $1 million a year for ten years was squashed - by a 4,054 vote to 1,911 vote margin.

With 3,368 votes cast, turnout was considerably lower than last year. The school board lowered their sights, asking only $395 per student for a maximum of only three years, hoping to sway voters with a more modest appeal.

"We knew it would be close," said Perham Superintendent Tamara Uselman, of the loss by 124 votes. "But we hoped it would be close the other way."

Uselman was disappointed and weary as she packed up her laptop computer to leave the Perham Community Center precinct.

"What's next? We will do what we said we would do," she said. That means more cuts, on top of the $2 million in cuts already made over the past two years.

Possible cuts for the 2010-2011 school year include:

--Reducing course offerings at Perham High School-including college-level classes.

--More reductions in cleaning and custodial.

--Laying off teaching staff, and increasing class sizes. Superintendent Uselman predicted that high school class sizes could number 40 students; middle school, in the high 30's per classroom; and at the elementary school, 28 to 32 students per classroom.

--Reduce all classroom assistants (para-professionals) working with students in reading and math, except those that are tied to federal legal requirements.

--Reduce food service to one kitchen.

--Additional administrative cuts.

Board Chair Rieber isn't expecting any help from the legislature for education funding.

"The state doesn't have any money. The only way we can get the money is through a levy."

"One thing I can say, it was a civil election," said Uselman. "We didn't get into the snarky attitudes and personal attacks."

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