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Voters reject school taxes -- supporters worried in Pelican Rapids, Perham-Dent

Voters in northwest Minnesota balked at raising their own taxes to fulfill pleas for operational or building funds by area school districts.

Pelican Rapids and Perham-Dent residents rejected operational levy referendums Tuesday despite spirited campaigns by levy supporters and the prospect of deep budget cuts. Lake Park-Audubon voted down a building bond proposal for the fifth time in three years.

The outcomes appeared to validate district fears that national economic uncertainty would make for particularly uphill battles at the polls. Statewide, voters rejected about half of school funding proposals, generally embracing the renewal of existing levies or requests for less than $600 per student.

But area school officials said waiting out the economic downturn was a poor option - and expressed resolve to regroup and try again.

"To me, waiting would be like running across an accident victim on the road and saying, 'If gas gets below 2 bucks a gallon, we'll call an ambulance; if not, just hang in there, buddy!'" said Tamara Uselman, superintendent in Perham-Dent, where 68 percent of voters shot down a $695-per-pupil levy. "We just didn't have time to wait."

In Pelican Rapids, about 52 percent of voters rejected a $1,100 levy. In Lake Park-Audubon, 55 percent denied a $19.5 million proposal to build a new high school and make repairs at the elementary school.

A Wednesday article in The Forum incorrectly reported results for the Pelican Rapids and LP-A votes, as well as for LP-A's school board race, in which voters elected three strong supporters of the bond referendum: incumbent Dale Binde, Darrel Pederson and Bryan Anderson.

The story relied on vote totals in only Clay County and didn't account for ballots cast in other counties. The school districts span multiple counties.

Superintendents in these districts said the no votes would seriously strain school budgets. Perham-Dent's Uselman said her district is bracing for $500,000 in cuts next spring on the heels of $1.8 million the district trimmed in recent years. Deb Wanek, the Pelican Rapids superintendent, said her district faces $1.2 million in reductions next year.

Wanek said she hopes the district might dodge some cuts by aggressively seeking grants or private donations. But both she and Uselman said their districts would almost certainly approach taxpayers again next year.

In LP-A, where an operating levy expires at the end of next year, the school board faces tough decisions. "Now the dilemma is what takes priority here: the operating levy or the facility issues," Superintendent Dale Hogie said.

Superintendents agreed the economic downturn complicated their efforts. For the first time, Hogie said, a community group didn't come forward to promote the bond: "Even the most avid supporters in the past were silent this time."

More than 50 Minnesota districts tried to pass bond or levy referendums this year. Those in western rural districts fared poorly, said Greg Abbott of the Minnesota School Board Association.

Statewide, only two districts that requested levy increases of more than $600 per student succeeded. The districts that suffered failed referenda face deep budget cuts, and a few are pondering consolidation or dissolution, Abbott said.

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