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It takes two: Voters will need to approve both questions to build and fund new school

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BEMIDJI -- Planning for the fall referendum is moving ahead.

The Bemidji School Board met in a work session Thursday evening to discuss referendum planning, specifically ways to cultivate a successful fall campaign by clearly communicating with the public.

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Bemidji Area Schools will ask voters in the Nov. 4 election to authorize funds to construct and operate a new school. That school, in a location yet to be decided, would house all of the district's fourth- and fifth-graders, thus freeing up classroom space within all of the elementary schools.

The meeting, which spanned about an hour and a half, opened with the School Board considering the proposed ballot language. Since the district needs voters to not only approve about $40 million in funds to construct the new building -- and replace the aging heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system at Bemidji Middle School -- but also approve operating funds for the new school, voters will actually be presented with two questions.

The School Board discussed at length which question should come first: a request for operation dollars or construction dollars?

Chris Leinen, director of business services, said it really does not matter which one is first as long as it is made clear to voters, both in the upcoming "vote yes" campaign and on the ballot itself, that if one question fails, they both fail. The district can't build a facility it can't operate, and it can't take funds to operate a school that doesn't exist.

"The concern ... I have is the possibility that people will walk in and see two questions and vote yes on one and no on the other," he said.

Getting voters to understand both questions must pass for the building to become a reality will be a key goal in the weeks and months to come, district administrators said.

Another question was what to call the proposed new building in the ballot. The district had been calling it an intermediate school, but officials voiced concerns that the voting public may not know what exactly that meant. Potential phrasing used "a new elementary school," but some board members said they would like to refer to the school as a new fourth- and fifth-grade elementary school to clearly communicate with voters on the intended use for the facility.

No action was taken, as the meeting was a work session. The School Board will next meet in its regular meeting at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 18, at which time ballot wording will likely be considered for adoption.

The 'vote yes' campaign

Two men with the DLR Group, based in Minneapolis, were on hand to discuss strategies that would lead to a successful referendum. Tony Sjolander, a community consensus specialist, said a "vote yes" committee is necessary to do just that.

"I've worked on three dozen of these and I've never seen one pass that didn't have a 'vote yes' group," he said.

The Bemidji School Board intends to do just that -- and soon. School Board members Melissa Bahr and John Pugleasa said they both had a few names in mind and others indicated they may have leads as well. Anyone interested in serving on such a committee or helping is encouraged to contact Jim Hess, district superintendent, in advance of the meeting on Aug. 18.

Sjolander detailed a plan through which the district and the vote yes committee would work to present clear and factual information to the public in advance of the November vote.

He encouraged the board to think of the voting population in a 20-60-20 split: 20 percent will support the school district no matter what, 60 percent will be unsure, and 20 percent will be opposed no matter what.

"The goal here is to really inform and focus in on that 60 percent," Sjolander said.

One key way of doing that, he continued, would be through the use of Facebook. He presented data that showed just 20 percent of all parents consistently attend school programs while more than 40 percent never do.

"You can see the challenge to inform even the parents alone," he said.

Meanwhile, data showed when it comes to getting school information, 57 percent of mothers obtain that info via Facebook while 26 percent get it from the district's website.

"That's what generates the conversations," Sjolander said.

When asked if "trolls" -- those individuals who hijack a post or post false or negative information in response -- could hinder a Facebook campaign, Chris Gibbs, an architect with the DLR Group, said it should not be an issue. If the "vote yes" committee is well organized and carefully managing its social media, its members and supporters should be able to address any negativity immediately.

One negative comment should be followed quickly with numerous on-message responses, Gibbs said.

"It's a challenge for the positive folks to drown them in the facts," he said.

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