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All quiet on Frazee levy

It seems as though all is quiet -- or at least hushed -- on the referendum front in Frazee-Vergas this time around.

The school district has been holding town hall referendum meetings to distribute information on the $700-per-pupil request and hasn't been seeing many homeowners in attendance.

"We get half a dozen people at the most," Superintendent Chuck Cheney said. "It's been interesting, apparently quite different from what it was five years ago.

"Then again, I think the difference then is there was no referendum and they were going for a $1,000 referendum. That's a lot different now," he said. "They can say at least we have it now, and we're going to reduce it by $300 down to $700."

"The attendance has been surprisingly low," School Board Chairman Matt Bauer echoed. "We haven't had any more than seven show up; it's been 2, 3, 4."

Five years ago when the referendum finally passed after several previous attempts, there were people filling the town hall seats, asking questions and taking a firm stance either for or against the referendum. It was an issue that clearly had people in the district talking.

This year doesn't seem to have the same feel to it. Even those who led the charge against the referendum last time are now writing letters in support of the vote this year.

But, district leaders aren't sure if it's because the district is actually asking for a lower referendum amount -- virtually unheard of throughout the state -- or because it's shown fiscal responsibility as of late with paying down loans and refinancing to save thousands in interest or if it's because bickering that had divided the district at one point has had time to heal.

Why so few people are showing up at the meetings is baffling district leaders.

"You have to think people have their minds made up already or they'd be showing up," Bauer said.

"People come to the meetings either with the idea that they're supportive and want to show their support, or they come with questions, or maybe they just simply are in the camp that says, 'we just don't support more taxes and we would rather not have that,'" Cheney said.

The district's $1,000-per-pupil referendum will finish after this school year, and the proposal is to lower it to $700 per pupil.

So for example, on a $100,000 house paying $224 in school referendum tax, it would be reduced to $149 with the $700 proposal.

He said the majority of the people who have attended the meetings are either supportive or simply seeking information and are open-minded about the proposal.

"A couple have come just to say flat out, 'we think our taxes are too high and we wonder whether or not you need it,'" he added.

During the meetings, Cheney presents a Power Point and purposely addresses the buyout of former superintendent Deron Stender.

There are a couple slides "that try to get at the buyout and then say a couple things about it and then hopefully move on," he said. "I think it's worked pretty well and we haven't avoided the subject. We've brought it up and it hasn't been a 'we gotcha' kind of deal. For a couple folks, that was a big issue and they wanted to talk about it."

The district has also sent out some mailings to inform district voters of the referendum vote on Nov. 6, and the district leaders have gone to Lions Club meetings and city council meetings to try and get the information out about the proposal.

Cheney said that he and Bauer have gotten calls from various radio and TV stations throughout Minnesota because of actually asking for a lower referendum, something not previously done in the state: Frazee-Vergas is the only one of the 40 districts asking voters to pass a referendum this fall.

A year with a presidential election, like this year, is known to be the toughest to get a referendum passed because of the larger number of voters at the polls. Also because some voters may brief themselves on the presidential candidates, but have no idea about the local measures like a school referendum.

And finally, the biggest hurdle for Frazee-Vergas this time around is the wording on the ballot. Because this is a referendum, by law, the wording on the ballot has to indicate that this will cause a tax increase even though it is actually a decrease from what residents are currently paying.

"For the most part, the response has been good, good questions, trouble understanding this ballot and why it says it's a tax increase when we're lowering it," Bauer said.

Besides student enrollment being up and therefore bringing more dollars back into the district, the board opted to ask for the $700 levy rather than a continuance of the $1,000 per pupil because at $700, the district will be utilizing the maximum amount from the state.

"The state will pay 32 percent of the $700, in effect reducing the amount to be levied locally to 68 percent of the authorized $700, or $476 per pupil," Cheney explained.

"This does not mean that each taxpayer will pay $476. The amount you pay is dependent on your property value."

Bauer said the district has been making wise money and financing choices in the last year or so, and the district will be debt free in six years if all goes according to plan.

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.