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District judge backs Frazee-Vergas school board on petition denial

The Frazee-Vergas School District parried an attempt to undo last year's approval of a $1,000 per-pupil levy referendum.

Opponents collected enough voter signatures this summer to place a proposal seeking to revoke the levy on this November's ballot.

The district's School Board rejected the petition last week on the grounds that a required statement summarizing its purpose on signature pages is vague and deceptive. A district court judge seconded the board in denying the petition.

The petition's authors scoff at the board's move to prevent a do-over of the 2007 referendum on what they deem a technicality. They plan to take the case to the state appeals court, even though the deadline for placing votes on the November ballot has passed.

"The School District used public dollars to deny the public a chance to vote on how the district is using public dollars," said resident Neil Edwards, referring to expenses the board incurred in consulting an attorney,

District officials counter they followed the state's petition rules to save a measure

60 percent of voters approved last fall. They say the referendum, which came on the heels of four "no" votes on the levy since 2000 and $2.8 million in budget cuts over the past five years, has ensured the district's financial survival.

Before the referendum's passage, the district was among roughly 10 percent of Minnesota school districts without an operating levy; its residents paid about half the state school tax average.

"The School District did what it should do in following the state's laws and requirements," Superintendent Deron Stender said. "We're happy to put this behind us."

Critics started collecting signatures to revoke the levy this summer, citing the economic downturn and questioning the district's spending choices.

The petition reads: "This Referendum in the Frazee/Vergas School District is causing 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."

"This summary statement is vague and misleading," said board Chairwoman Dana Laine. "We certainly have had enough cuts over the past four years to suggest an undue burden."

The board consulted the state attorney general's office on the validity of the petition, but received a letter stating that decision is the board's call. In the letter, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Raschke Jr. pointed out that the absence of a neutrally worded summary of purpose, as required by a state rule, does not necessarily invalidate a petition.

"The School Board was looking for a legal loophole, and they may or may not have found one," said resident Julie Slevin.

Supporters of the petition, with help from Fargo's Aaland Law Office, took the case to the courts. On Monday, Detroit Lakes District Court Judge Peter Irvine denied the petition.

Edwards said his group's attorney plans to file an appeal. He acknowledged that the likelihood of making the November election is slim, but said the district's critics are determined to challenge the levy at a later date.

Slevin and other levy opponents are running for three open School Board seats in a pool of 10 challengers and Laine. Slevin, whose daughter attends Head Start in the district, said she would push for a more conservative approach to spending.

Laine said she is relieved, but added: "Who knows if it's over yet? We don't let ourselves get too excited."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead