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Moorhead school officials regrouping after failed levy vote

MOORHEAD -- In the aftermath of Tuesday's bruising defeat at the polls, anxious questions loomed in the Moorhead School District: How will officials go about trimming a $1.3 million projected shortfall next spring? And will the district approach taxpayers again next year?

By a slim margin, Moorhead voters shot down a plea for an extra $850 per student in school taxes. Officials were still reeling from the outcome on Wednesday, and they said they would explore their options in coming weeks and months.

"We just know it's going to be painful," said Board Chairwoman Kris Thompson. "We wouldn't have approached voters if we didn't believe it was necessary to avoid painful cuts."

Officials would rather not dwell on what they might have done differently. Their information campaign might have been low-key, they said, but they didn't spare time and energy in getting the word out. District officials made more than 30 presentations to service groups, churches and local AARP members.

"We went throughout the community," Superintendent Lynne Kovash said.

In the view of school leaders, the rough economy and flood protection-related tax increases tripped up the levy.

"The School District was the one place where the community could say no," Kovash said.

More than 70 percent of the 58 districts statewide that asked taxpayers for help got an OK, the second-highest success rate in the past decade, said Greg Abbott of the Minnesota School Board Association. Many districts were asking for a levy renewal or only a modest increase. But even among the 12 districts that asked for more than a $500-per-pupil increase, 10 passed their referendums.

"I think the real key is that people know districts haven't gotten much support from the state," Abbott said. "Somebody has to step up. Voters really came through this year."

Moorhead officials say they'll start brainstorming ideas promptly for ways to balance the district's budget. With $4.5 million worth of cuts last spring and more than $1 million in 2008, that might not be possible without more layoffs and the cuts in programs the district has tried to avoid.

But leaders balked at talking specifics. They also wouldn't speculate if the district would go to the polls again, which it can do next November at the earliest unless it resorts to mail-in ballots.

Several factors could affect the size and shape of a cuts package.

Minnesota might cut education funding to address its multibillion-dollar deficit. Tough salary negotiations with teachers continue with help from an outside mediator: The district wants a hard freeze. Teachers have asked for a 3.5 percent cost-of-living increase over two years, in addition to seniority and benefit increases.

Kovash also worries that families taking post-flood buyouts might move away, hurting enrollment.

"I just really hope to not affect class size any more," she said.

Counterparts in Pelican Rapids and Perham-Dent, where levy votes failed Tuesday for the second time, had a more detailed vision of what defeat will mean.

In Perham, Superintendent Tamara Uselman said her district compiled a list of likely reductions leading up to its $395-per-pupil levy vote to give taxpayers a sense of what was at stake. On the list: the district's five-day kindergarten program, high school electives including college-credit classes and 13 percent of the teaching staff over the next two years.

And, said Uselman, "If there isn't additional state funding - and I don't believe there will be - then without a doubt the district will have to go for a levy again or look at pretty phenomenal reductions."

In Pelican Rapids, Superintendent Deb Wanek said the defeat of the levy, with two questions for a total of $1,100 per pupil, will likely mean program cuts and an average high school class size increase from the high 20s to the low 30s. The district will also likely try again at the polls next year.