BEMIDJI -- It’s a no.

Voters said "nope" to the Bemidji Area Schools operating referendum on Tuesday, which would have levied a property tax increase to address the district’s budget deficit. Around 60% of voters refused the ballot measure, with the question receiving 11,725 “no” votes and 7,851 “yes” votes.

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 to avoid making cuts to programming and staff.

The Bemidji Area Schools district will now need to examine other ways to solve the impending budget crisis.

“We knew going into this it was going to be a difficult, uphill challenge,” Superintendent Tim Lutz told the Pioneer Friday. “This was a difficult decision to make in the first place. No one likes reaching out to the community and asking for more funding. But at this point in time, it was something we felt we had to do because of the struggles the district is going through.”

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Next steps

"While we are disappointed in the results, we respect the decision made by school district voters," Lutz said in an email sent out 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 proposed operating levy was one step in a comprehensive plan to address the district’s looming budget deficit. Other steps will 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.

“We also are not looking forward to the other challenging decisions we will need to make to stabilize the budget. But having heard the mandate on the referendum, this is our next step that we must do, because we do not want to go into statutory operating debt,” Lutz said.

Lutz explained if cuts are not made at a local level and the district falls into statutory debt, the state will come in and make the cuts regardless. He said this is something the district wants to avoid, in order to make those decisions themselves.

Cuts could come from anywhere, Lutz said, mentioning reduced student services, larger class sizes, fewer high school class offerings, shifting of grade levels in the middle or high school buildings, limits on extracurricular activities and reduced games per sports season as possible affected areas.

These decisions will likely take place at school board meetings between December and April.

Lutz said another operating referendum in the future, either at the same level or at a smaller per-pupil increase is “still on the table.”

Regardless of the outcome, Lutz said he is still grateful for the public support for the schools.

“I really want to thank, on behalf of the referendum committee and the district, anyone who did vote yes, and anyone who is considering supporting the district in any way moving forward,” Lutz said.

A grassroots online movement has developed, encouraging families to send the money they would’ve contributed via taxes had the ballot measure passed, directly to the district.

Lutz said while the district is not involved in this effort, he is appreciative for the support and said the district would welcome donations, which would go into the general fund.