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Another levy vote in November 2009

Facing a deficit that could climb past $1 million in the next three years, the Perham-Dent School Board voted to bring another levy increase request to the voters.

The board voted June 17 to launch a levy referendum November 3, asking for an additional $695 per student--or an estimated $1 million a year.

"I've been getting a lot of phone calls," said Board Chairman Jim Rieber. "They would like to see us make a decision on if we are going for a levy; and, if so, how much."

The other question is "how long." When the board asked for $1 million a year at the fall 2008 election, it was defeated by a 2-1 margin, 4,054-1,911. One of the recurring issues raised by voters was the ten-year term of the levy increase--with many believing it was too long a time period to raise taxes.

The board and administration have taken that to heart, and will ask for only a five-year increase in the tax levy.

The motion to levy an additional $695 per student was made by board member Ron Berns, followed by a unanimous vote.

After more than $2.4 million in cuts over the past four years, administrators feel they've come to a virtual standstill on further budget-cutting. The next alternative is to begin cutting costs that impact the classroom--and the students--directly.

Even with the modest $695 per student levy, the school is only buying time for about three years. Based on projections, even with the levy increase the school would likely begin deficit spending within four years.

Without the levy, the Perham schools will be in the red by $308,692 for the 2010-11 school year; and by 2011-12, the school will be in "statutory operating debt," at $1.4 million in the red.

"Even with the levy, we're not looking at adding expenses or fluff," said Superintendent Tamara Uselman. "We will still be facing tough decisions. We're only buying time. But without the levy money, those tough decisions would have to come now."

With the decision to move ahead with an estimated $1 million a year levy referendum, now begins the difficult campaign.

"To get the voters' attention, we need to look at going into the arena of increasing class size," said board member Mike Hamann. "Nobody wants that to happen...But emphasizing that, without the levy class sizes will increase, is the best chance we have of gaining public support."

Over the past four years of budget cuts, the board and administrators have strived to avoid cuts that directly impact classroom instruction--of which class size is viewed as an important component.

Class sizes have grown, particulary at the high school level--where there are classes of 37 speech students and 36 science students. But as the downward trend continues with school finances, the elementary class sizes are sure to be impacted.

"Disaster" is how board member Arnie Thompson described it the levy increase referendum is not approved.

"We have to be totally honest with the public," said Thompson. Without a levy increase, "the school will be in a $1 million deficit in a couple years...It is very important to tell the voters what programs will disappear and what will happen if the levy doesn't go through."