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Published December 21 2011

Perham school officials closing in on capital projects referendum

PERHAM, Minn. - School officials here are closing in on the details of a capital projects referendum that would alleviate some of the district's budget woes and pay for a handful of projects thwarted by a failed operating levy this fall.

The referendum has not been finalized, and some school board members are wary of pressing the public too quickly after voters handily rejected a $973,000-per-year operating levy in November. But the board and district officials are eying an April 3 vote for a four-year capital projects referendum of between $3 million and $4 million - and hoping a black-and-white breakdown of where the money would go will sway voters who have rejected four operating levies in four years.

Meanwhile, a few of the more drastic options for closing the district's budget shortfall - projected at about $6 million over the next five years - have been set aside. The district will spend down its reserve fund rather than cut staff. And while a move to a four-day school week was discussed, reception was tepid after the projected savings came in at about $140,000 a year, or 1 percent of the district's budget.

A capital projects referendum differs from the failed operating levy in a few key ways. It must go toward infrastructure and technology improvements. In Perham, those would range from patching leaky roofs to tech upgrades like wireless networks and iPads to replace some textbooks.

School board member Arnie Thompson said those upgrades are necessary to keep pace with other schools.

"It's just unbelievable how much more advanced they are than what we are because we're nickel and diming ourselves," he said.

The capital projects referendum also cannot be used to pay staff except technology personnel. That means it wouldn't reduce class sizes, one of the district's chief concerns in the wake of staff cuts over the past eight years.

Jim Rieber, another board member, said technology improvements could help offset class sizes by making instruction more efficient.

A capital referendum also spreads the cost to taxpayers over a larger base that includes seasonal property owners - a contentious issue in a district with a big seasonal population that would have been excluded from the operating levy.

The operating levy would have cost the owner of a $200,000 residential property about $211 a year. The capital levy would cost the same property owner $103, with comparable costs for seasonal owners.

Superintendent Mitch Anderson said he hoped the lower cost and broader tax base would temper some of the chief complaints voters have had with past referendums.

But Rieber and fellow board member Mike Hamann said they feared the fallout from the November vote might be too fresh.

"Right now, the public has a feeling that we're pushing it," Hamann said. "I'm not going to vote for it if it's a real negative feeling out in the public. There's no advantage to having it go through and then having it go down the tubes."

Pat McErlane, a resident of the district, said the property tax increase would be hundreds of dollars a year for him - a tough pill to swallow for a retiree with no income.

"On retired people out here that have no kids in the system, it's unbelievable," he said of the tax burden.

McErlane, who voted no on the November referendum, said he'll wait to see the specifics before deciding on the next one. But he wondered if a capital referendum would be the end of the matter.

"Is there some guarantee then that there won't be another referendum a year down the road on top of this?" he asked.

Anderson said he views the capital referendum as a bridge to 2016, when other bonds will come off the books for taxpayers. At that point, he said, the district could seek another operating levy without increasing taxes.

Because of redistricting in 2012, the district has a narrow window of dates for a referendum. Anderson said it is targeting April 3 to get a handle on its financial outlook heading into the summer.