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It's 'yes' for Frazee-Vergas

The Frazee-Vergas School Board can put away its well-used budget-cutting knife, at least for a few years -- the operations levy referendum passed on Tuesday.

And it passed in commanding fashion, with 1,600 voting "yes' and 1,006 voting "no."

"It's huge in terms of what it means for the kids of this district," said Nancy Dashner, who has been on the school board for 12 years. "I'm personally looking forward to getting back to the business of education."

Here's how the vote broke down in each of the school districts' three precincts:

Frazee -- 853 yes to 365 no.

Vergas -- 318 yes to 190 no.

Height of Land -- 429 yes to 451 no.

The referendum gives the district permission to levy an additional $1,000 per student unit for five years, which will generate about $1 million per year.

The district has cut $2.5 million and laid off 17 teachers over the past five years. It would have had to cut another $800,000 next year had the referendum failed.

The new operations levy will cost the owner of a $100,000 house about $222 per year.

"A great big 'thank you' for pulling together," said Superintendent Deron Stender. "For recognizing that the future of our kids is very important, for placing value on education. They can trust that this board and this administration will do everything we can to make this district better, stronger and more competitive."

The election result was a huge relief to volunteers with the PACE (Parents and Community for Education) group which spearheaded the "yes" effort.

"We worked hard, we've been working on it for 11 months," said Amie Erickson of Rochert, public relations chair for PACE.

So what made this referendum attempt successful when others had failed?

"We did a lot of communication -- going door-to-door, not expecting them to come to us. And the direness of the situation was more evident," she said.

The unofficial election results were announced at a special school board meeting Tuesday evening at which Board Chairwoman Dana Laine thanked the PACE group, the superintendent and "the voters of the district who saw the need, stepped up to the plate, and voted 'yes.'"

She also thanked the "no" voters for participating in the election. "We represent everyone, yes and no alike," she said in an interview. "That's really how it is ... now the planning begins."

The successful referendum will mostly be used to keep existing programs in place, Stender said. But the district may also be able to restore some lost programs.

"There's a whole host of things -- the board will have to meet and prioritize," he said. "Keeping in mind that we will sustain operations, we just won't have to cut as deep in future years. But it's kind of nice to have a respite."

The district will have to shift from a mindset of crisis and deep cuts to a more normal one of how best to benefit students and improve academic excellence, he added.

Stender and a host of other superintendents across the state plan to work hard on changing the state system of funding education.

A referendum "is not something a school district should have to depend on," he said. "We have to change this process."

Teachers in the district who this year agreed to a pay freeze should be commended for putting students above themselves, said School Board Member Rich Ziegler.

"I'm just overwhelmed that this finally happened," he said of the successful referendum. "I'm elated, relieved and thankful for all the work people put into it. It probably won't solve all our problems, but it will go a long ways."

There was a huge turnout for the referendum vote, with a turnout rate of about 70 percent of registered voters in the Frazee precinct, for example. Poll workers said lots of first-time voters were registering. Polls were open from noon to 8 p.m.

People on both sides of the issue expected a close race, judging by interviews with voters on Tuesday. Several people who said they planned to vote "no" declined interviews or were not comfortable commenting publicly.

"I'd like to see it pass," said Don Peichel of rural Frazee. "I haven't heard the negativeness of past times (this is the fifth time the issue has come to a vote). It's fairly quiet down at the café ... If it doesn't pass, it will closer than it ever has been. Some of my friends that were against it have been coming around.

"As the school goes, so goes the town," Peichel added. "Positive people built this and negative people can tear it down."

"I think it's going to go down (to defeat)," said Jerry Simonson of Shell Lake. "It's too much money ... I think they can better appropriate the money they have to do a better job."

"It better go through -- finally," said Chuck Mann of Cotton Lake. "I'm for it 100 percent. It will raise my taxes a lot, but somebody paid for my schooling..."

Jim and Louise Pace of rural Frazee support the referendum.

"We want it to pass," she said. "Because we raised seven kids and they all went to this school, and we have two grandkids in this school now."

Hard times for the district are beginning to show in the quality of education, Louise said. "There have been some cuts that have been hurting the kids -- especially this year. We don't want to see it (the school) get in so much trouble that it closes."

"We don't want to see programs cut," Jim added.

The community seems to be about evenly split on the issue, said Alice Wirth of Frazee.

"I think it will pass," she said. "They've really been campaigning, and they've lost a lot of pupils here -- people are aware of that."

"I worry if it doesn't pass, what's going to happen," said Grace Blaine of Frazee. "Someone had to pay for our education ... There's a lot of older people here who can't afford it -- that's the whole thing."

"I hope it passes, even though it raises my taxes," said Paul Adams, a construction worker who lives in Silver Leaf Township. "There ain't nobody stepping up to the plate no more -- the government can't keep us all afloat, local taxpayers have got to step up, at least that's how I see it."

With a seventh-grader (Noah) in Frazee, Stewart Kitzmann says he has little choice but support the referendum.

""He loves it (the school) and will stay as long as I put him there," he said of his son. "Just based on what he's told me, based on what's going on at the school, we need it ... several programs they have cut he would likely be involved in."

But Kitzmann on Tuesday afternoon had no predictions on which way the vote would go.

"It's hard to get a pulse on this area," he said outside the Height-of-Land Town Hall.

Jim and Jean Navara of Little Toad Lake also supported the referendum, but Jim had doubts that it would pass.

"I'm a little concerned about it myself," Jim said. He worked as a business professor at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks for 45 years and is a strong believer in education.

Jean, who worked in administration at UND for 18 years, was more optimistic that voters would approve the measure.

"It's important that it passes for the kids," she said.