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OPINION: No happy holiday thoughts for the Perham school board

'Tis the eve of the holiday season, but in the Perham-Dent School Board Chamber, it felt like the eve of destruction.

Frowns and scowls; groans, moans and glowers...Nobody was happy during the marathon meeting.

Heads were still pulsating painfully after the 2-1 defeat of a levy referendum on November 4. If passed, the levy increase could have brought up to $1 million annually into the financially-strapped district. Nearly the entire meeting focused on cutbacks, declining enrollment, revenue shortfalls and deficits.

Further pain was inflicted on the board and audience, numbering about 20, when the school's accounting firm delivered its annual, half-hour audit report. Such financial presentations are unendurable in even the best of times. But these are the worst of times for the Perham-Dent schools, and the audit report, ordinarily just routine and boring; was a doomsday dissertation. Had the grim reaper himself presented the audit, at least there might have been drama to the darkness. Instead, it was a numbers guy in a dark suit, Don Zierke, from the school's audit firm Miller-McDonald.

With expenditures of $13.6 5 million last year, and $13.52 in revenue, the school's reserve funds dropped to only $228,000.

With declining reserves, no increase in the levy for next year, and few places left to cut--the future is dreary.

In fact, the school could fall into "statutory operating deficit" in as few as three months. The state and the auditors recommend reserve funds of at least two to three months. Perham has enough surplus cash to operate a week or two--unless the gas prices hit $4 a gallon.

Also highlighted in the audit report is a graph with a steady downward slant, charting from 1999 to 2008. Enrollment fell from about 1,800 students to 1,500 within a decade. Student numbers in the current school year are 25 below projections--which translates into a loss of more than $150,000 in per pupil revenue.

The grim news about school finances seemed never-ending. Even the school lunch account showed a deficit of nearly $12,000.

Scanning the room, everybody at the Nov. 19 school board meeting seemed to be visibly aging with each passing moment.

Board Chairman Ron Berns' beard had a lighter shade of pale-gray by the end of the near four-hour meeting.

With a little more hair on his head, board member Mike Hamann would have resembled the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards--after a rough night.

Put a cigar in his fingers, and board member Dan Nodsle would bear a vague resemblance to Winston Churchill--after the Germans bombed London.

Less-scathed by the dismal discussion was board member Dave Schornack. Not that he enjoyed the bad news, but he's an executive-type guy who is undaunted by the challenge of dissecting and digesting numbers.

As for the weary women at the board table and in audience, well, you'll need to use your imagination

"We won't find a happy rabbit to pull out of the hat," said school superintendent Tamara Uselman, as they discussed ways to find money and/or cut expenses.

The "magic rabbit" was trampled Nov. 4--when voters killed the increased levy referendum by a 4,054 to 1,911 margin.