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Frazee School Board rejects petition, court battle looms

During an emergency meeting Thursday morning, the Frazee-Vergas School Board denied a request to put the referendum question on the November ballot.

"The District ... had determined that the petition was insufficient ... because each petition page did not include a statement summarizing the purpose of the petition," a written letter from School Board Clerk Kathryn Kallis said.

The letter was addressed to Oscar Birkeland, who had turned in the petition to the school district on Aug. 12.

Upon receiving the petition to have the referendum placed on the ballot, the district decided to have the Minnesota Attorney General's office determine the validity of the petition.

But in the reply received Wednesday, it was clear that Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Raschke Jr. was having none of it, and the agency wasn't going to get involved.

He basically said in his letter to the district that the matter was not something his office was going to provide guidance on, and the district would have to decide what to do based on the advice of its legal counsel.

The main question, whether a "separate, neutrally-worded statement 'summarizing the purpose' of the petition" should have been included on each page of the petition, was a question "beyond the scope of opinions of this Office," Raschke wrote.

Referring to a Duluth case, he noted that just because a petition has some technical problems, it is not necessarily going to be found invalid by a court.

The school district's legal counsel (Margaret Skelton, of the Ratwik, Roszak and Maloney law firm in Minneapolis) provided nine rules under a Minnesota statute that must be satisfied for the validity of the petition.

One was not met: "Each petition page must have a statement summarizing the purpose of the petition."

Kallis' letter also states that, "The district's legal counsel is concerned that the petition is written in such a way as to be vague and/or misleading."

That's something petition organizers don't agree with.

"There was absolutely nothing (misleading) with the petition," Gill Gigstead said. "It's crystal clear."

He added that not one single person who signed the petition questioned what it was about.

The headline on the petition states: "Petition requesting the school board of Independent School District No. 23 (Frazee-Vergas area schools) to hold a November 2008 referendum to revoke the current referendum levy of $1,000 per pupil."

The explanatory paragraph under the headline states: "This Referendum in the Frazee/Vergas School District is casing great hardship on many of the District's citizens. Revoking this Referendum would reduce this hardship without causing an undue burden on our education system. This would simply mean that the Frazee/Vergas School Board would need to adjust their spending habits to fall in line with the revenue income that it currently receives."

Thursday morning, school board member Rich Ziegler read and moved for approval of a resolution rejecting the petition. The board so voted.

But it's not over yet.

Petition organizers are waiting to hear from Clay County District Court in Moorhead on whether the petition is valid or not. The Minnesota Supreme Court kicked the issue back to district court.

Petition organizers are asking the court to order that the question be added to the Nov. 4 general election ballot.

The ballot measure would give voters the chance to revoke or uphold a $1,000-per-student operating levy increase approved last fall by a 60 percent margin.