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EDUCATION: School referendum campaign takes shape; Committee hopes to persuade voters to approve new school, operating costs

BEMIDJI -- The campaign advocating for voters to approve millions of dollars in school levies in November held its first formal meeting on Wednesday.

The "Vote Yes Bemidji Proud Committee" discussed the fight ahead of them Wednesday at the Bemidji School District offices: they will attempt to convince voters to fund the building of a new school for fourth- and fifth-graders, the operating costs for the new school, as well as replacing the HVAC system in the middle school.

The DLR Group, an architectural firm the School District has used for previous building projects, will advise the Vote Yes committee, but will not take a directive role, representatives at the meeting said.

Tony Sjolander with DLR said the firm has advised hundreds of similar referendum campaigns with an 89 percent success rate.

Much of the meeting consisted of Sjolander presenting to the approximately 30 campaigners present on the basics of how referendum campaigns operate. The biggest obstacle the campaign must deal with -- "the biggest rock in the jar" in Sjolander's words -- is fundraising.

"You can't do anything without money," he said.

For maximum efficiency, the campaign must inform voters, identify those most likely to support their cause, and remind them ahead of Election Day to vote, Sjolander said.

"If you've got a pen, write down these three words: inform, identify, remind," he told the campaigners.

On the Nov. 4 ballot, voters will be asked two questions: the first to approve the School District to authorize bonds of up to $40 million for a new fourth- and fifth-grade school and replacement of the HVAC system at Bemidji Middle School, and the second question will ask voters to approve a $180 per pupil levy increase for operating costs of the new school.

Sjolander emphasized the legal boundary between referendum campaign activity and official Bemidji Area Schools activity: the School District can provide objective information on issues pertaining to the referendum and information about the ballot questions, but it generally cannot advocate that people vote yes. That job is for the Vote Yes Bemidji Proud Committee, Sjolander said.

Bemidji Schools Superintendent Dr. James Hess said the Vote Yes campaign would have to work to stand out amid a flurry of activity from other campaigns during the general election season. He urged those assembled of the importance of building the new school to help rectify overcrowding at Bemidji's existing facilities.

"There is no second shot at a childhood," he said.

Hess acted as a private citizen rather than in his official capacity during the meeting.

Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
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