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Perham school levy meeting Aug. 19

A family with three kids was planning to enroll in the Perham district--until they learned that classroom art has essentially disappeared, and the school was in short supply of science textbooks.

This fall, those three kids will be riding the school bus to somewhere else.

The campaign for an increased school tax levy is underway, and the August 11 Perham Area Chamber of Commerce "Power Hour" meeting was one of the first public pitches for the levy.

Next on the schedule for levy information meetings is a session with the school board on August 19, 6 p.m., at Perham City Hall. School officials are urging opponents and undecided voters, especially, to attend the meeting,

Delivering the message were school activities director Fred Sailer and Superintendent Tamara Uselman. The loss of those three children to another school district was essentially the first time Perham failed to attract students as a direct result of program deficiencies, said Uselman.

This is a setback, after a five-year period where Perham was attracting more open enrollment students than it was losing--by a ratio of nearly 2-1.

A revenue boost is a crucial necessity, contend school officials. Under the proposed levy hike, the school would tax property owners at a rate of $695 per pupil--or an estimated $1 million a year for the next five years.

"The next round of cuts will impact students like never before," said Uselman, adding that there have been several million dollars in cuts over the past three years. Another million will need to be slashed within two years--without an increase in operating revenue. "This is not a threat. It is a simple matter of mathematics."

Adjusted for inflation, Perham, and most districts, are operating at $1,000 less per pupil when compared to the mid 1980's, said Uselman.

The school's auditor said that Perham school officials have been "excellent" in implementing cost controls, noted Uselman:

---Custodial management is down from one for each building: To one for all of the Perham schools

---Administration has been cut by the reduction of a Dean of Students in the high school.

---Non-academic support staff has been cut by 30 percent.

---Lunch prices have been increased as "high as we dare go," said Uselman.

---Athletic and extracurricular fees have been increased dramatically.

---The school now has a part-time business manager, hired on a contract rather than as an employee with benefits. Perham is the only district of its size with a part-time business manager, as far as Uselman knows.

---Staff is under "absolute austerity" orders: Don't purchase anything. The vocational-ag teacher "has to beg for money to feed the rabbits" in the small animal program, said Uselman.

---The Dent school is now closed, and it was done without losing any students to open enrollment, said Uselman.

In five years, Perham school's building projects will be paid off and the school will be essentially debt-free. At that time, taxpayers will see a substantial reduction in taxes.

"We're not facing an expense problem, it is a revenue problem," said Uselman, stressing the need for a levy increase.

To illustrate the Perham school levy, in relation to other schools, Uselman displayed these figures. This is the amount of additional levy being assessed to taxpayers in other districts:

Rothsay: $2,200 per student

Henning: $1,000 per pupil

Frazee: $1,000

Morris: $600

Staples: $400

Fergus Falls: $400

Perham: $26

Perham took second place in the statewide "Challenge Cup," which is an award for schools with top extracurricular and academic performance. Last year, Perham was first.

"We're acheiving excellence, and it is being done with brutal efficiency," said Uselman. "But without a revenue increase, we can't do it anymore."