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Perham, others seeking new levies

As Moorhead makes its pitch for an $850-per-pupil operating levy, a number of rural Minnesota districts in the area are asking taxpayers to renew their levies or chip in extra.

Perham-Dent takes a third crack at passing a levy, while Fergus Falls and Norman County West (Halstad-Hendrum) seek to keep existing levies on the books longer.

School election filing in the state wrapped up last week. Across Minnesota, more than 80 districts placed levy or bond referendums on the November ballot, according to the secretary of state's office. That's the most since 2007.

The state's lingering economic woes have made a recession-borne dilemma ever starker: Do taxpayers or schools need a break more? Both Fergus Falls and Norman County West are going to the polls a year or two before levies expire.

"Really, we have three shots at it that way before it goes off the books," says Norman County West Superintendent Ollen Church. "We're trying to think ahead."

In Perham, school officials are splitting up their five-year levy request into three ballot questions: $595 per pupil to maintain class sizes, $195 to update classroom technology and textbooks and $195 for building repairs, such as new roofs.

"This gives voters a sense of control over where their money is going," said Superintendent Tamara Uselman.

A $26-per-pupil levy in the 1,440-student Perham-Dent district is expiring this year, and with it, the district stands to lose $120,000 in matching state funds. The $595-per-pupil levy would cost the owner of a $150,000 home $129 a year. The full $985 would cost $219 a year.

In 2008, Perham-Dent voters overwhelmingly rejected a $695-per-pupil levy over 10 years. Last fall, they narrowly shot down a three-year, $395 levy. Both supporters and opponents of the levy vow to campaign hard this time around.

"Until the economy improves, we all have to find ways to cut back," said Bernie Steeves of the Concerned Citizens for Property Tax Fairness.

Last year's district request was roughly in line with what the group believes the district needs, Steeves said, and they didn't actively campaign against the levy. That won't be the case this fall.

"Why all of a sudden are we going for almost $1,000?" he asked. "Do we even know what we need?"

Pat Nordick, the head of the community group Together for Kids, said the more budget cuts erode district offerings, the more money it needs to rebound. According to Uselman, the Perham-Dent district has cut almost $4 million in the past five years, including four teachers this past spring.

"We continue to make cuts, so the hope is the community will understand the district is really in need of additional revenue," Nordick said.

Meanwhile, both Fergus Falls and Norman County West are getting a head start on renewing existing levies.

Fergus Falls hopes to extend for another 10 years a $416-per-pupil levy that expires next year.

"We thought it was a good idea to go out this fall, give it a try, ask for the minimum of what we can get by with and have another chance to go out next year," says School Board Chairwoman Melanie Cole. "We didn't even really debate asking for more."

In Norman County West, the School Board considered asking for $600 per pupil in addition to a $700 levy renewal on the ballot this fall and another $900 levy that doesn't expire until 2016.

But with rising city and county taxes, Church said, "If we had tried to bump the school taxes as well, that might have been a tough sell."

Levy opponents and supporters disagree over whether the sluggish pace of economic recovery will make school taxes a tougher sell.

Last November, as the recession raged, taxpayers backed more than 70 percent of 58 district levy requests, the second-highest approval rate in the past decade.

"Everybody knows about the big state deficit and that schools aren't getting any new aid," said Greg Abbott of the Minnesota School Board Association. "They know districts really have nowhere else to turn."

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