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Voters to face one question on school referendum on November ballot

The Bemidji School Board has agreed to ask voters one question in the upcoming operating levy referendum.

At a special meeting Tuesday, the board voted unanimously to ask voters Nov. 4 to renew the current operating levy of $501 per pupil for another five years.

The board agreed in April to discuss potentially adding a second ballot question -- one that would likely ask for a higher levy amount. The board decided Tuesday to have one only question on the ballot.

Board member Gene Dillon said he doesn't believe voters, who already feel strained by taxes, would support a referendum with two questions.

"I think we really need to be concerned about our children, but I also think we have to be concerned about our community," Dillon said.

He said he supports one question that asks voters to maintain the current levy.

"Pretty much maintain what we have -- that's what I think this will do," Dillon said.

Without the renewal of the current levy, the school district will lose a total of $3.2 million per year after the levy ends, which is set to occur at the end of the 2008-09 school year.

A referendum to extend and expand the current levy failed last fall. The ballot asked voters two questions: to continue the $501 per-pupil levy for another six years and to raise that amount by $199 to $700 per pupil each year for six years.

The school district uses the current levy to provide all-day, every-day kindergarten and the K-1 program, replace school buses and reduce class sizes.

Superintendent Jim Hess suggested the board say it will maintain its commitment to have reasonable class sizes, a bus replacement schedule, up-to-date curriculum and all-day, every-day kindergarten if the current levy is renewed.

While renewing the levy would help the school district maintain some of what it is currently providing with levy dollars, the spending capability of the dollars would be less than in previous years, board member John Pugleasa said.

"Five-hundred and one dollars doesn't buy as much today as it did five years ago," he said. "Our $501 has been eroded by inflation just like everybody's pocketbook has."

He added, "We would need $550 to $580 to be able to tread water based on what our $501 bought us in the first year of the referendum."

Even if the referendum passes, he said the board will still need to make adjustments to the school district's budget annually in response to inflation and how much money the state Legislature does or does not allocate to education.

Board member Carol L. Johnson asked whether the board could compromise by asking one question, but increase the amount to $551 per pupil for a five-year period.

Hess said the referendum may lose support if the board asks for more than the current levy amount because the ballot would, under current Minnesota law, state that a "yes" vote would result in a tax increase.

"The ballot language is set by the Legislature," he said.

Hess said the Legislature is considering a bill that would change the ballot language for school districts that are trying to renew existing levies. If the new language is adopted, he said, the ballots for these referendums would state that voting "yes" would continue an existing levy rather than state that it may or will result in a tax increase.

What is the impact?

As the referendum campaign gears up, Pugleasa said the campaign should address the adjustments the school district would have to make if this fall's referendum fails.

"(Voters) need to understand what a 'no' vote means, what it will cost," he said.

In a very preliminary look, Hess said losing the $3.2 million generated annually by the levy could result in a combination of things, ranging from across the board cuts to reducing all-day, every-day kindergarten to delaying bus replacement to reducing elementary technology and allied arts.

Hess said the board will have a number of very difficult decisions to make should the referendum not pass. He said the board would consider a variety of budget adjustments.

"It's going to be a balance of reducing expenditures and generating revenues," he said.

The board plans to continue to discuss what the $3.2 million means to the school district at a work session May 20.

"I think we need to say, 'There is no sacred thing,'" Pugleasa said.