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School board rethinks four-day weeks, new levy still likely

Perham-Dent School Board members are thinking twice about four-day school weeks, in light of negative community response to the idea, less-than-stellar cost saving projections and some new and good news about their budget.

In a special workshop on Tuesday, board members continued some hot-button conversations from their last meeting two weeks ago, including a discussion about budget cuts and the chance for another levy referendum.

Though four-day school weeks initially seemed like a good money-saving option, administration has since researched the potential cost savings it would bring to Perham-Dent. These savings would amount to about $140,000 a year, roughly one percent of the district's total budget - and some board members are now saying that may not be enough to warrant such a drastic move.

This news came on top of other figures just released, following the district's recent audit. Thanks to a small increase in state funding, as well as higher-than-expected enrollment (about 50 more students than first projected), it's looking like the district could just about break even this year. Though the numbers still aren't final, they're looking better than original estimates, which saw the district ending the year $180,000 in debt.

Given this new information, as well as the negative feedback board members said they have received from parents and other concerned residents regarding four-day school weeks, the board is now giving stronger consideration to other options - including spending down the district's fund balance to stave off substantial cuts.

Over the last four years, the district has managed to build its unreserved fund balance up from just under $50,000 to its current total of more than $1.7 million. While this is still more than a million dollars short of what the auditor recommends, some board members admitted there was a little "wiggle room" there to work with - for now.

That same fund balance is projected to have more than a $2 million deficit by 2016.

"I would like to see us look at other things before going to a four-day week," said Sue Von Ruden. "It's a pretty major switch for just a little bit of money... I'm not willing to look at that right now."

Von Ruden also questioned whether four-day school weeks were in the best interest of kids. Sue Huebsch wondered the same thing, stating her fear that quality of instruction could be negatively affected. Cyndy Huber echoed those sentiments: "I want the best for kids," she said.

Most board members agreed, saying they'd be willing to look at the possibility in the future if need be, but not while they have the fund balance to support full school weeks for another year, giving them more time to explore other options.

No final decisions were made at the workshop, and four-day school weeks remain up for debate, along with any other possible cuts, reductions, or new sources of revenue.

In the meantime, the board will continue to look into the possibility of attempting a Capital Projects Levy referendum. This would have to take place as a mail-in ballot, at times when such votes are allowed by the state. It could be as soon as December, or, more likely in Perham-Dent's case, the beginning of April.

Board members expressed concern about the time crunch between now and then. They acknowledged that it would take a lot of prep work to figure out exactly what the district's needs are, and what the price tag on those needs would be. They also want to keep the public fully engaged through the planning process by holding public meetings and seeking feedback from teachers and community members.

Mike Hamann said that, for the levy to have a chance at passing, the public needs to be involved and educated on what the district is asking for this time around.

"There are a lot of good reasons for going down this road," he said. "But the public's got to want it. We need to take a little time and bring them along."

Despite four previous failed levy referendums, school leaders believe this one could be different. Voters would be able to see exactly where their money was going, said Superintendent Mitch Anderson, and the funds would be spread across a wider tax base, having less of an impact on individual taxpayers.

Though the school board has yet to even estimate an amount for this Capital Projects Levy, the potential difference is already clear. According to a document handed out at the workshop by Anderson, even if the district asked for $1 million, it would cost the average Perham-area taxpayer roughly $60 per year (the $973,000 levy that failed this past November would have cost closer to $140).

Huber asked that the board - and the public, at future meetings - come up with a definitive list of "needs" for the district, so that they can start working on a dollar amount.

"The voters should know that we're trying to compromise with this levy," said Anderson.

The next workshop will be held at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 21, before the start of the board's regular monthly meeting at 5 p.m. at City Hall.

Editor's note: This article will be printed in the Thursday, Dec. 15 edition of the EOT Focus. Due to an error, it was left out of the Dec. 8 print edition, and the previous week's school board article appeared in its place. We regret any confusion this may cause.