Why the levy?
"This is the only tax you have control over. The money stays right here."
That's how Perham-Dent School Board member Dan Nodsle described the school levy referendum, which will collect about .35 to .75 cents a day from property tax payers.
All of that money will be collected, and spent, for local education, said Nodsle, at an Oct. 20 informational meeting in Dent.
"We were under pressure to pass a levy for the past four years," explained Superintendent Tamara Uselman to a group of about 20, gathered at Dent's Nootzi's Cafe. "But we didn't want to call for help until we really needed it. And we need it now."
With state funding at a 0 percent increase from 2003-2005, only 2 percent last year, and only 1 percent this year, school funding hasn't kept up with inflation.
"We kept waiting for the state to solve the problem," said Nodsle. Meanwhile, the Perham School Board slashed school operating expenses by $2 million since 2004.
Perham's levy referendum would generate about $695 per student, for up to ten years. Perham is one of 90 percent of schools in the state that is either seeking a levy hike, or already has one in place.
"The $695 per student is the bare minimum, enough to pay the bills," said Uselman.
By comparison, Pelican Rapids is asking for $1,100 per student. Frazee's levy was for $1,000.
Further clouding the future for 75 percent of Minnesota's school districts is declining enrollment. Perham's student numbers held up longer than many rural districts, but enrollment here is expected to decline for several years, and level off at about 1,300. Within the last five years, Perham-Dent enrollment was as high as 1,650.
"Is there anything we can do to stop the decline in enrollment," asked one Dent area resident, adding with a laugh, "have more kids?"
And that is one of the key factors in enrollment--fewer babies being born.
"We have more families than we've ever had in the district," said Uselman, who was one of nine children. "But they don't have as many kids."
Critics of the levy increase contend that the school should not seek a duration of ten years. But Uselman said that, to plan for an institution like a public school district, it can't be done in two-year increments. She compared it to a homeowner. You wouldn't want to refinance your house every two years, she said.
Responding to questions about total athletic department expenses, Uselman said it represents only 3 percent of the total budget--but involves more than 70 percent of the school's students.
Support coaches have been cut to all volunteer in nearly all sports, noted Uselman. Participation fees, which parents pay to have their children involved in extracurriculars, have been increased more than ever.
Other cuts have included band, three bus routes, and the custodial department. The school is down to a half-time librarian and a half-time art teacher.
The school is overdue to upgrade computers. Text book purchases have been cut. Support staff has been cut.
"With no new revenue, we're going to start losing teachers--that's the only place left to cut," said Uselman. "This is not an issue that can be solved by more budget-cutting. It's a revenue problem."
Without an increase in the levy, teachers would be the next target. The board and administration has cut "from the outside in," explained Uselman. The largest share of budget cuts, to date, have been non-classroom. But the next round of cuts is certain to increase the teacher-student ratio, from mid to high 20's to low 30's per classroom. In the high school, algebra and English classes are as high as 36 per classroom.
On the positive side, Uselman highlighted some of the many accomplishments in the Perham-Dent school district:
---Perham was the first public school in its class to win the state "Challenge Cup," which honors schools with the top extracurricular performance.
---Perham earned a "Blue Ribbon School of Excellence in Reading" honor. "Each child will read," is the simple mission statement at the school, said Uselman.
---Perham-Dent High School offers enough college level classes to potentially save families $10,000 in tuition when attending post-secondary school.
---Perham has a unique pre-engineering program to help prepare students for related fields in college.
School open house for residents; levy info meeting set Oct. 27:
A community question and answer session regarding the levy will be held at the Perham Fire Hall on Monday, October 27 at 7 p.m.
All interested individuals are invited to attend for information that will explain why the school district is seeking a levy.
Also on Monday, the school is hosting an event titled "Come see us now!"
This is an open house specifically for "move ins" and "moved back" families as well as for anyone who has not had a reason to be in one of the community's schools in a long time.
Families who are new to the community in the last ten years and families who have moved back after leaving the area are encouraged to attend this event on Monday, October 27 at 7:45 p.m. The group will meet inside the front entrance of Perham High School, take a tour, learn a lot, and talk over cookies and coffee.