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Board differs on school levy vote for 2009

Some school board members are getting cold feet about bringing another tax levy referendum to Perham-Dent school district taxpayers.

"We may have to wait and see how the federal economic stimulus bill plays out," said School Board Chairman Jim Rieber, at the Feb. 23 meeting. "With everything up in the air, it is hard to take an aggressive step forward...Where we're at today, I'm not sure the votes are there."

While voters are sympathetic toward the school, said Rieber, people are also concerned whether "they will have a job in six months."

Sharp differences among board members were voiced on the levy question. With another $500,000 in budget cuts facing the board, following the failure of the levy referendum last fall, there are few options.

"I'd like to see us try again...How long can we wait?" asked board member Ron Berns.

"We pushed hard the last time (to pass the levy) and we didn't just lose--we got kicked; we lost big time," said board member Mike Hamann. "With the economy turning sour, we have to be careful, we have to be realistic."

But Berns made a motion to begin planning for another levy vote.

As recently as about three months ago, the board appeared unanimous about trying to pass another levy in the fall of 2009.

"Flip-flopping" is how board member Arnie Thompson described it--if the board doesn't proceed with a vote to increase the levy.

"I'm concerned about turning 180 degrees in the other direction," said Thompson. "We look like a wishy-washy board, jumping from one direction to the opposite direction."

But board member Dave Schornack expressed concern that Perham will develop the "reputation of losing" if it tries for another levy referendum too soon.

"We have districts around us that have that reputation of losing," said Schornack, of districts that have tried and failed multiple times.

However, countered Thompson, even if the levy passes--the money won't come in until the following year. Meanwhile, the school would face another round of painful cuts--estimated as high as $650,000, said Thompson.

Administration and the board have consistently maintained that cuts should come from sources that least impact the students and education.

But after slashing tens of thousands from the maintenance and custodial departments, the kitchens, and even closing the Dent school (after this year), the school has to begin looking at cutting teachers.

"Under this budget, class sizes will be increasing," said Superintendent Tamara Uselman, adding that the equivalent of 3.5 teachers will be cut--maybe more.

After much discussion, Berns agreed to modify his motion. The administration was asked to bring back information on a levy scenario for the fall of 2009--including the dollar amount of the levy, the time span, the needs the school faces, the impact on education, and the length of time the increased levy would be in force.

In surveys conducted after the fall 2008 levy failed by a 4,054 to 1,911 margin, the most common criticism was the fact that the tax hike would have been authorized for ten years.

The Berns motion passed unanimously, and the board will review information on a proposed levy referendum at the March meeting.