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School tax hike gaining support

Painful budget cuts and local tax increases appear inevitable over the next three years in the Perham-Dent school district.

For the first time during months of consternation over the prospect of $1 million in cuts in the next two years, even the most fiscally cautious board members acknowledged that a levy referendum to raise taxes and operating revenue will likely be necessary.

More than 30 residents and school staff gathered for the March 10 school board meeting. The first round of cuts will be made by the board at the March 19 regular meeting. On March 25, a town meeting will be held at Perham Memorial Hospital and Home.

Prospect of closing Dent elementary brought to table for first time

There was another first at the meeting.

After cutting nearly $700,000 last year, and continuous discussion of another $500,000 next year, it was the first time that the closing of the Dent school was brought officially to the table.

It won't happen for the 2008-2009 school year. Logistically, it would require more time than the next five months to plan.

Dent's enrollment is tough to predict, which makes planning difficult, said Superintendent Tamara Uselman. But the school's best projection is that the grade 1-4 school will fall from its present 62 students to only 38 in 2012.

"I have concerns about disengaging the people of Dent," cautioned Uselman, adding that the community is "very important to our district."

"We need to have the utmost respect to the town... and try to maintain some use of the building and keep the community vibrant," said Uselman. She suggested an Early Childhood Center and community center that could be used year-round, and serve all ages.

While there are many great educational opportunities in Dent, said board member Jim Rieber, there are also certain programs that are not available because of its small size. By absorbing Dent students into Perham's Heart of the Lakes elementary school, those students could have access to more learning opportunities, said Rieber.

"We just don't have the surplus funds to run a second building," said Rieber.

Though it is only a preliminary estimate, the school could save about $100,000 by moving the Dent student body to Perham. Most of the savings would come through reduced utility and maintenance costs.

Board members go on record supporting tax increase vote this fall

As far as a tax increase, three board members went firmly on record as supporting a levy referendum this fall.

"I've been on the board for five years, and we've done nothing but cut," said board member Dan Nodsle. "It's time to draw a line in the sand and move forward."

School administrators estimate that the Perham-Dent district has undergone $1.43 million in cuts since 2004.

"We need to come up with a plan to bring it to a vote of the public this November," said Board Chairman Ron Berns.

"It's very hard to compete with other schools when you don't have an excess levy," said board member Mike Hamann, adding that "we have to take our chances" with a referendum vote this fall. Hamann said that the school should have put the increased levy to a vote last fall.

Presidential election year is risky for school levy referendum

Board member Rieber conceded that the school would need to pass a levy "at some point in time."

"But it is a bad choice to put it on the election ballot this year," said Rieber. School tax increase referendums have a high rate of failure when coupled with a high profile presidential election.

Board member Dave Schornack agreed with Rieber.

A tax levy won't help next year, said Schornack. Even if an increased levy is approved this fall, the school won't see the revenue until the following school year.

An increased tax levy is only a temporary solution, said Schornack, because in four years, the increase in revenue will be absorbed by overhead costs. Then, the school returns to the budget cutting mode.

The enrollment forecast will also cut into school funding, as Perham-Dent schools are projected to decline in enrollment from about 1,475 this year, to 1,346 in year 2012.

Budget cuts will be decided March 19; town meeting set March 25

All board members agreed that an intense public information and input-gathering campaign needs to be launched.

That process will begin March 25, 7 p.m., with a special community meeting at Perham Memorial Hospital and Home's town center.

But that won't change the fact that the board needs to cut nearly $500,000--by next week.

Continued review of the cuts will be at the March 14 noon school board meeting.

The cuts will be voted on at the March 19 regular school board meeting.

Schools can't count on state funding to even keep up with inflation, said Superintendent Uselman. Increasing locally-generated revenues, through tax increases, combined with locally decided school program cuts will be necessary.

"Perham is going to have to solve this, we can't rely on the state," said Uselman. "This has to be a Perham issue...we need to define what kind of school we want."

Community survey information being compiled

Meanwhile, Superintendent Tamara Uselman is in the process of organizing more than 600 pages of data, collected in recent surveys and comments. More than 200 people from the community responded; 150 students; and 108 school staff members, said Uselman.

The survey information will be posted soon on the school web page.

Also, the public is urged to email or phone school board members with input on school funding. Email addresses are listed on the Perham-Dent school web page.