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Reverse referendum battle looms in Frazee

FRAZEE - When some Frazee-Vergas School District residents decided to petition to reduce or revoke the November-passed referendum, little did they know they'd be doing it a second time.

They found the previously circulated petitions were invalid because they hadn't asked for signers' birthdates to verify ages.

"We were given the wrong information from the secretary of state of Minnesota, and they gave the wrong information to the attorney," Oscar Birkeland said.

With those being invalid, the group decided to only circulate one petition this time. It simply asks that the issue -- to have a referendum or not -- be put on the November ballot.

For the school district, Superintendent Deron Stender is preparing for an unknown battle. He said he thought the district had won a war, but sees now it was only a battle.

"It's real," he said. "It's not (just) about money."

Although democracy allows these citizens to petition to put the question on the November ballot, Stender said he's not sure what is the true issue. If it was about money, he continued, the referendum would have passed years ago when it was being matched 73 cents on the dollar by state education funding.

His concern: No one is mentioning the kids at this point, and the district is being cast in a poor light.

He added that citizens have the right to participate in the school district taxes, but no one attaches themselves to the city or county to petition taxes.

Petition organizers said while collecting signatures, they found enough concern from residents to go out and get the signatures over again. They found enough people cared, they couldn't just discard the idea, they said.

Gill Gigstead said they collected 822 signatures to reduce the referendum and 718 to revoke it. They needed -- and still do for the new one circulating -- over 15 percent (660 signatures) of registered voters to pass it.

Becker County Auditor-Treasurer Ryan Tangen said the petition would need to be submitted to the school board and the board has 10 days to verify signatures. The petition then needs to be verified and certified by the school board to the county by Sept. 12 in order to be put on the November ballot. Absentee ballots are sent out in October.

The petition will be submitted to the school board, then Tangen said he's guessing verifications will be split between Becker County and Otter Tail County offices since the school district is in both counties.

"That's something we're still trying to hammer out with the secretary of state," he said.

The secretary of state basically serves as the authority on this matter. Last week Tangen was working on it with the secretary of state, but because of the short week and holiday weekend, nothing is for sure yet.

The school district has already received the first payment from the passed referendum, which was used for just what the district said it would -- textbooks, technology and facilities.

"It's not excess money. It's needed and used," Stender said.

The science textbooks that were purchased were much needed, he said. Other funds will go toward the replacement of the boiler and ventilation costs for the schools, and the district is in the process of looking at just putting a sprinkler system in the elementary school because that is technically what the fire marshal has written up the district for. That would save the district -- and ultimately the taxpayers --money from the health and safety fund, which is levied for.

The district also purchased 200 computers, giving one new computer to each classroom and replacing those in four computer labs.

If the referendum gets on the ballot and doesn't pass a second time this fall, there is no retroactive action -- no loss of revenue -- on the money already given to the district.

Stender said he has heard a lot of talk and confusion about the $800,000 that surprised the district in the fund balance. That money was not being secretly built up, but rather existed from under spending by the district and an under estimated enrollment increase, he said.

"It's difficult times all around, not just what the district is going through," he said, adding that there is property tax relief available.

"They have a right to it," he said of the people petitioning the referendum, but "it's about the kids."

Neil Edwards added that the group won't have to redo the petition for the audit, and it will be turned in the same time as the new petition.

For more information on the petition, contact Oscar Birkeland at