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School may face $4.1 million in cuts over four years

By Louis Hoglund

Now is the time for all good Yellowjackets to come to the aid of their school.

With budget cuts of $480,000 to $570,000 projected each year through year 2012, the outlook for the Perham-Dent schools is bleak. But school officials are taking a proactive approach, with a big push for input from district taxpayers.

"We want to give people an opportunity to have their say," said Superintendent Tamara Uselman at the Jan. 23 school board session.

The first step for Yellowjacket parents, taxpayers--and students--doesn't cost a cent. Simply show up at the upcoming meetings, or make your views known verbally or in writing.

Online surveys are planned; phone-in comments are welcomed; and three public meetings are planned for February.

Residents can approach board members and administrators on the street, in the bleachers or at the coffee shop.

As far as Uselman and school administrators are concerned, school finances can be discussed at cocktail parties and in the taverns.

The point is: Start thinking, talking, writing, pontificating and propositioning in regard to the future of the Perham-Dent schools.

A referendum to raise taxes is being planned by school officials, and is expected to be on the local ballot this fall.

The public information campaign will include three public meetings. Three meetings are set for both school employees and the public: Feb. 4, 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 6 at 7:45 a.m.; and again at 3:30 p.m. All sessions are tentatively planned for the the Perham High School auditorium.

"I ask that all district constituents--citizens, students, families and employees--work in a supportive manner as we make difficult decisions that allow our district to be financially stable," wrote Uselman in her Jan. 23 report to the school board.

Along with a close, public examination of local school finances, Perham officials will also be taking aim at the state. Schools will be lucky if state aid to education is increased by 2.5 percent. A 1 percent increase in state aid, which was the case last year, is a more likely projection. At that rate, schools can't keep ahead of inflation.

Declining enrollment alone could cost $236,626 in lost state aid for the 2008-2009 school year, according to a five year projection prepared by Perham-Dent school business manager Kristi Werner.

Perham-Dent schools' "fund balance," essentially a reserve fund similar to a family savings account, is expected to hover around $300,000 over the next five years. That may sound like a good sum of money on the surface, but auditors recommend that the school's fund balance be equivalent to one month of expenses. For Perham-Dent, that is about $1.1 million.

Basically, the Perham-Dent schools are about one week of operations from S.O.D. That stands for "statutory operating debt" and it is a bad thing. It's like a business operating in the "red" losing money every day that the business is open.

District residents will be hearing S.O.D. stories, as well as a few "sob" stories about school finances, in the coming weeks, as the public information campaign mobilizes.