BEMIDJI -- It looks like a no.
Bemidji residents weighed in on whether or not to approve a Bemidji Area Schools operating referendum on Election Day.
As of 2:45 Wednesday afternoon, the measure seems to have failed, with "no"s receiving nearly 60% of the vote.
With 37 out of 37 precincts reporting, there were 11,725 "no" votes and 7,851 "yes" votes, although this may not necessarily account for all mail-in votes.
Beltrami County Administrator Kay Mack sent a memo Wednesday morning and said Beltrami County Auditor-Treasurer JoDee Treat is currently reviewing results on all races within the county. While absentee ballots were counted, at this time, they do not appear to be included on the Secretary of State’s unofficial election results.
"While we are disappointed in the results, we respect the decision made by school district voters," Superintendent Tim Lutz said in an email sent Wednesday. "Unfortunately, our budget issues remain unresolved. The school board will now be forced to look for ways to stabilize our budget through cuts to programs, staff and student services.”
The school board put forward the referendum to revoke the district’s current $180 per pupil operating levy and replace it with a $460 per pupil levy in order to avoid making cuts to programming and staff. The proposed operating levy was one step in a comprehensive plan to address the district’s budget deficit. Other steps include continued prudent spending, working with state lawmakers to fully fund public education in Minnesota and retain and attract students to the district, Lutz explained.
“Now that our communities have given us clear direction on our financial situation, we will need to move ahead with stabilizing our budget,” said Lutz. “We will keep community members informed about the school board’s next steps. We want to thank everyone who took part in this historic election and made their voice heard.”
If it had been approved, this measure would have revoked the district’s existing referendum authority of $180 per pupil and enacted a new one for $460 per pupil. The question on the ballot was: “Shall the revocation of the existing referendum authority and the replacement with a new referendum revenue authorization proposed by the board of Independent School District No. 31 (Bemidji), Minnesota be approved?”
The tax would have been levied in 2020 for taxes payable in 2021 and applicable for 10 years unless otherwise revoked or reduced. The property tax portion of the revenue authorized would have required an estimated referendum tax rate of 0.07384% for taxes payable in 2021.
What does this mean for the district?
The failure of the referendum likely means the district will need to make severe cuts. Board members have indicated that since 80% of the district’s budget goes toward staff wages and benefits, staffing changes would likely be in order.
The district finances were in rough shape prior to the pandemic. Through the federal CARES Act, schools should receive funding to help offset increased costs due to COVID-19, but the district will still need to implement cost-saving strategies and reductions wherever possible.
Krisi Fenner, the Bemidji Area Schools director of Business Services, made a case for approval during a school board meeting this summer.
“It’s comparable to our peer groups and well below the state average. And it maximizes state funding, where the state will pick up the maximum amount of that levy with the least amount of burden on the taxpayers,” Fenner said. “As long as we continue to tighten our belts and be very conscientious of our spending, it allows us to sustain our current programming.”
What would it have meant for taxpayers?
For a homeowner with a property value of about $100,000, the additional taxes would have been about $45 per year if voters had chosen “yes” this November.
Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Tim Lutz compared this to the price of a cup of coffee per month.
The previous referendum authority was $180 per pupil, and the new one would have been $460 per pupil, a $280 increase.
This would not have affected summer homes and recreational residential properties. For agricultural property (both homestead and non-homestead), the taxes for the proposed referendum would be based on the value of the house, garage and one acre of land. There are no referendum taxes paid on the value of agricultural land and buildings.