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Referendum fails, Pelican schools face big cuts

For the third time in less than two years, voters in Pelican Rapids narrowly rejected a school levy.

In Otter Tail County's first mail ballot election, 1,619 district residents, or almost 53 percent of voters, weighed in against the $700-per-pupil levy.

The Otter Tail Auditor's Office counted ballots until early Tuesday morning.

Later on Tuesday, Superintendent Deb Wanek said the district will proceed with $300,000 in cuts to its budget, which, she said, has been "brutalized over the past few years."

The 950-student district is among fewer than 10 percent in Minnesota without an operating levy.

"It's an injustice," Wanek said. "It's unethical we get $1,100 per student less than the state average and yet our students are held to the same standards."

School officials said successful passage of the levy would have warded off some of the planned cuts. That's why they chose the mail ballot election about six months after the levy's second defeat at the November general election.

The cuts will result in two firsts for the district, Wanek said: It will now have an elementary classroom with more than 30 students and physical education only every other day in junior high.

Almost 70 percent of registered voters in the district participated in the election - a marked turnout increase from last November's roughly 55 percent turnout.

Still, said Otter Tail County Auditor Wayne Stein, "I would have thought it would have been higher. The ballot's been delivered to you, and your participation doesn't require much of anything."

The $700-per-pupil levy would have raised school taxes on a $100,000 home by an estimated $130 per year over eight years.

Levy opponents invoked lingering concerns about the economy and insisted the district should do more to boost enrollment and attract back a high number of students enrolling in neighboring districts.

The district has to wait until next year to try again at the polls. Whether it does might ultimately depend on tough decisions about education funding the state legislature faces.

Along with news of the levy's defeat, the district posted contact information for state legislators on its site Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Wanek said, she plans to focus on conveying the district's strengths, a message that can get lost amid talk of financial woes.

A gradate was recently accepted to Harvard's MBA program; a student got a perfect ACT score.

"I think people discount us for who we are, and we have so much going on," Wanek said. "We have to work harder to make people understand that."

(Mila Koumpilova is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.)