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Published December 21 2011

Perham schools: Officials close in on plan

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 eyeing 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 dicussed, 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.

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.

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.

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.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502