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School officials to study options following referendum rejection

With the failure of both referendum questions Tuesday, the Bemidji School District has some decisions to make.

On the ballot, the first question asked voters to continue the current operating levy of $501 per resident pupil for another six years while the second question asked voters to raise that amount by $199 to $700 per resident pupil each year for six years.

Of the registered voters in the school district, 4,494 -- or 22 percent -- voted in the special election. The first question on the ballot received 2,410 "no" votes and 2,074 "yes" votes -- 54 percent and 46 percent respectively. Meanwhile, the second question received 3,079 "no" votes and 1,389 "yes" votes -- 69 percent and 31 percent respectively.

"I'm disappointed," said John Pugleasa, chairman of the Bemidji School Board.

Particularly disappointing, he said, is the failure of the $501 option.

If voters had approved the $501 option, the school district planned to maintain what it is providing through the current five-year operating levy -- all-day, every-day kindergarten and the K-1 prep program, school bus replacement and class size reduction.

"It will be hard to sustain those things," Pugleasa said.

Without the $501 "tool," he said, the school district will have to make significant cuts that he believes will diminish its quality.

After the results came in Tuesday night, Superintendent Jim Hess said the school district has some work to do.

"Although the current operating levy funds will be available for use until the end of the 2008-2009 school year, we will immediately begin the planning process to consider reductions to district expenditures, including personnel and programs," he said.

The current operating levy generates $2.96 million each year with one-third of the dollars coming from state aid and two-thirds from the local levy.

With the additional $199 per pupil, which would have generated about $1 million more each year, the school district had planned to hire another counselor at Bemidji High School, another counselor at Bemidji Middle School, a library media specialist at the middle school, another school district nurse and three additional teachers.

The school district also had planned to use the money to support its computer technology backbone and buy equipment that would help strengthen science, technology, engineering and math programs. Additionally, the school district had planned to start a textbook replacement fund and improve school safety, with the primary focus on improvements at the middle school.

Future referendum?

Hess said it's up to the School Board to decide whether to try holding another operating levy referendum.

Pugleasa added that the School Board will need to go back to the table and re-evaluate what the outcomes of Tuesday's referendum mean.

Hess said the School Board will make a decision after reviewing the needs for future referendums, the strengths of the referendum campaign and how it could have been improved, school district financing and the educational commitment that the school district has made. He said the School Board also will consider any funds that would be available from the state Legislature.

"This was all brought about by the state Legislature's funding for public schools," said Hess, noting that the school district wouldn't need referendums if "we could be adequately funded" by the state.

Dee Sweeney, who was a member of the KIDS Committee, which led the referendum campaign, said the state is putting a burden on school boards to go to their own communities for permission to tax them. As a result, she said, communities may also become burdened.

Given no changes at the state level, Pugleasa said it would be difficult for him to not move forward with a referendum next year, at least for the $501.

"I don't know how we can make adjustments to absorb that," he said.

He noted that Tuesday's results show the difficulty of a property tax question.

"I don't believe that a 'no' vote is the indication of the support for our schools," he added.

KIDS Committee member Doug Lewandowski said he is perplexed with Tuesday's results.

"I'm disappointed," he said.

Sweeney added that she's "sad for the schools." She said the schools in the school district will struggle to deliver what they want to for students.

Why the results?

Hess said he thinks Tuesday was an opportunity for people to say no to any kind of tax.

"I think some may have voted with their pocketbooks," he said.

He said the failed referendum could also be related to the controversy surrounding the proposed Bemidji regional events center, which he said is an issue that is not yet resolved. The center would be half funded by an extension of Bemidji's half-cent sales tax.

Sweeney said perhaps so many taxing issues are on the plate locally that people might be sensitive to being taxed. She also said some people have expressed that the changes in the polling places were confusing. The school district combined the 36 precincts in its boundaries into eight polling places for the special election.

Additionally, Sweeney said she thinks it's difficult to motivate people to vote in a non-general election year.

Pugleasa noted that he felt that the School Board worked hard to provide opportunities to hear from to people. And yet this fall, he said, it was difficult to get people out for referendum forums and get them to participate in the process.