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Pelican Rapids schools prep for levy vote

PELICAN RAPIDS -- This picturesque lake country community is gearing up for a second crack at passing a school operating levy, after narrowly defeating one last fall.

School leaders say the district is in a better spot to see the levy pass: They're making a more modest request to taxpayers. They feel last fall's high anxiety over the economic downturn has subsided somewhat. And they say the community is more attuned to the district's predicament after $600,000 in budget cuts this spring.

"We're asking for money," said Dena Johnson, the head of a pro-levy citizen group, at a Thursday forum. "It's not something any of us are really comfortable doing, but the state has tied our hands."

Some opponents of a levy - many of them lake homeowners who've seen property values and taxes rise - say they're not moved. They point out the district will find itself in the red in a few years even if the levy passes and insist a lasting solution is luring back scores of Pelican students who enroll in neighboring districts.

Last year, roughly 52 percent of voters rejected a 1,100 per-pupil levy. This year, the school board split the amount in two: $900 per-pupil to maintain district programming, including small class sizes, and, if voters choose, an additional $200 for technology and curriculum upgrades.

Based on community feedback, the board also cut the levy duration from 10 to five years. The $900 per-pupil levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 home an estimated $175 per year, with an extra $40 if the full $1,100 passes.

Beyond that, the pitch of levy supporters is the same: The district is among fewer than 10 percent in Minnesota without an operating levy, and Pelican residents pay a fraction of the state's average school tax. They point to the 2007 in-depth analysis by Twin Cities consultant Roger Worner that commended the school for its wide range of academic offerings and conservative spending.

"This school has been running very efficiently for many years, and the taxpayers have benefited from that," said School Board member Charlie Blixt.

However, school leaders say expenses have continued to outpace state aid, and now the district faces deeper cuts and a 2011 inclusion on the state's deep-in-the-red list. Pelican is one of a slew of area districts pursuing new or increased levies this fall.

Meanwhile, district critics are turning to the Worner report for ammunition as well. Members of the Pelican Lake Property Owners Association, such as Faye Engkjer, zero in on the unusually high student out-enrollment the report highlights. They say the district isn't doing enough to stem the loss, a grave financial blow to the 950-student district.

At about $6,000 per student in state aid, last year's net loss of 150 students to other districts cost Pelican $900,000, just $200,000 short of what the full $1,100 per-pupil levy would bring.

And, says Engkjer, whose two children are enrolled in Detroit Lakes, she's troubled that the district will end up in the red in three to five years even with the levy.

"If people keep getting taxed and taxed, and it's still not the solution, why are we doing it?" she said.

Steve Prieb, who's not an association member, says he understands the school is not at fault for his outsized tax bill, which has more than doubled in the past five years. He bought a parcel by Franklin Lake in the 1980s before lake country property values shot up. He's been trying to sell his home there for three years. And until he does, he's not willing to spend more on taxes.

If the levy passes, Prieb, who has a home in Arizona and a daughter in Texas, plans to change his residence. Seasonal properties don't incur school taxes in Minnesota.

Superintendent Deb Wanek concedes attracting back the students who've left would really help. But the task is a challenge. In the center of a sprawling district, Pelican schools lose many students because it's more convenient for parents to go next door.

The Worner report partly attributes the loss of students to lingering concerns about diversity in the district, where roughly a quarter of students are English language learners. Wanek says the district has ratcheted up efforts to dispel concerns, which she and the report itself deem unfounded.

District officials say they would love to be able to ask for more money, but they're requesting just enough to tide the district over until the state comes through with more aid.

"I know it's a sacrifice for people," said Wanek. "I know it's terrible. I look at these valuations, and they're going up so fast."