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Perham group pushes for levy

PERHAM - Supporters of a school operating levy on the November ballot in Perham are going all out in their pitch.

They raised more than $13,000, sent direct mailings and, on Monday, unveiled a campaign headquarters - in a vacant grocery store across from the town's Dairy Queen.

Like the 50-some Minnesota districts with excess levies on the November ballot, the Perham-Dent School District and its backers feel the need to invest extra energy in the referendum. As financial news grows more somber, persuading residents to raise their own taxes has become a harder sell.

But the Perham community group pushing for the levy is trying to harness the anxiety over the global financial crisis to its advantage, urging residents frustrated by their limited sway over national trends to have a say locally.

"We believe we have no power to fix Wall Street, but we have all the power to make change here on Main Street," said Staci Malikowski, a parent and co-chair of the pro-levy Together for Kids group, at Monday's ribbon-cutting ceremony, which drew 100 residents in front of the former Dean's Country Market.

Over the past four years, Perham-Dent cut $1.8 million from its budget, Superintendent Tamara Uselman said. The 1,400-student district lost arts programming, custodial staff and paraprofessionals, bus routes and its dean of students.

Uselman explains the budget crunch with a financial double whammy decried by superintendents across the state, where more than 90 percent of school districts now have an excess levy in place. State funding hasn't kept pace with skyrocketing expenses while declining enrollment has shrunk per-student state aid, she said.

Unless residents come to the rescue this November, school officials say, the district will face $500,000 in cuts next year, and it will be impossible to keep those cuts away from the classroom.

"Even if you get a magic carpet to fly the students to school next year, you'd still have to cut teachers," Uselman said.

The proposed $695 per-pupil levy will raise taxes on a $100,000 home by about $125 over the next 10 years. Residents are also paying off two school building bonds for a total of $7 million.

On Monday, The Forum could not reach members of Concerned Citizens for Property Tax Fairness, which opposes the levy. But in an article in the Perham Enterprise Bulletin, an organizer, Bernie Steeves, argued a tax hike would hurt fixed-income homeowners crunched by the economic downturn.

Dan Brooks, president of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said concerns about the economy have seeped into levy standoffs across the state. Of the 10 Minnesota districts that held levy votes earlier this year, four succeeded.

He knows of several districts that held off on their votes to dodge the worst of the crisis. As for the rest, levy supporters are going all out: "I'm seeing more of the taking the dog and pony show out to the general public. The campaigns are becoming more sophisticated."

A diverse lineup of speakers took the stage Monday at the new headquarters, where volunteers will answer questions and hand out signage.

The current economic travails were a steady motif, and Uselman closed the event by pleading with residents, "Don't let your anger over a golden parachute prevent you from providing a safety net for our kids."