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Bemidji School Board continues referendum talks

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Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

The Bemidji School Board is moving toward its second attempt in two years to get an operating levy referendum passed.

"The referendum is of critical importance to the education of our children in the district," Board Chairwoman Ann Long Voelkner said in an interview Thursday.

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On Wednesday night, the board discussed holding another referendum this fall. Last year's effort to extend and expand the current levy failed in a Nov. 6 referendum. The final year the school district will receive dollars from the current levy is the 2008-09 fiscal year, which is the next school year.

Without the renewal of the current levy, the school district will lose a total of $3.2 million per year after the levy ends.

Superintendent Jim Hess said in an interview Thursday that he expects the board will determine at its April 21 meeting how much money to ask for in the referendum and how long the levy would last.

He said he believes there is an interest among some board members to continue the existing referendum at the current level -- $501 per pupil.

"That would keep things the way they are and not result in a tax increase," Hess said. "We think that will help keep the ballot question simpler and easier to understand."

Long Voelkner said the board also plans to discuss at the April 21 meeting how the money generated from the levy would be used.

However, she said she anticipates the board will wait to develop the wording of any referendum questions to accommodate any action by the state Legislature on proposals to change the wording of referendum ballot questions.

Before discussing the referendum Wednesday night, the board reviewed possible ways to trim the school district's operating budget by about $692,000 for the 2008-09 fiscal year with staffing adjustments. About 80 percent of the operating budget pays for personnel.

Director of Business Services Chris Leinen said earlier this year that he projects the school district will have an operating deficit of about $875,000 during the 2008-09 fiscal year due to the state's "underfunding" of K-12 education that year.

To remain at an 8 percent general fund balance, the school district must reduce its operating budget by about $692,000. A school district policy calls for a general fund balance of about 8-10 percent of the fiscal year budget.

If the school district does not make any adjustments to minimize the projected operating deficit for the 2008-09 fiscal year, it could experience an operating deficit of nearly $4.13 million during the 2009-10 fiscal year, Leinen noted.

He added that this projection is based on the potential loss of operating levy dollars -- which would also trigger the loss of equity funding from the state -- and the carry-over effect of the state's "underfunding" of K-12 education during the 2008-09 fiscal year.

The state Legislature increased the per-pupil formula by 2 percent for the 2007-08 fiscal year, which is the current budget year, and by 1 percent for the 2008-09 fiscal year. For the first year of the biennium, the Legislature also targeted additional money toward special education.

Referendum talk set

A referendum steering committee has formed. On Thursday night, it will host a presentation by Mary Cecconi, executive director of Parents United for Public Schools. Cecconi will present "School Talk: Why a Referendum?" from 7-9 p.m. at the District Office, 3300 Gillett Dr. N.W.

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