What the district did right | BrainerdDispatch.com | Brainerd, Minnesota

What the district did right

Posted: November 9, 2011 - 10:55pm
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Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls
Marv Begin (left), Brainerd Superintendent Steve Razidlo and school board member Ruth Nelson waited and watched as some of the final precincts trickled in to the second floor of the Historic Crow Wing County Courthouse during Tuesday’s school election.

One of my favorite moments I witnessed while waiting for the final precinct — Nisswa — to roll in the doors at the Historic Courthouse late Tuesday night was when Dawn Razidlo kept prodding her husband, Brainerd Superintendent Steve Razidlo, to loosen up and smile, to celebrate that both levy questions were approved by voters.

It was pretty clear at that point that the second levy question had a solid 800-vote lead after flipping-flopping back and forth between the yes and no votes. Dispatch photographer Steve Kohls was anxious to get back to the newspaper office to get his photos ready for Wednesday’s paper and was hoping for a reaction from Razidlo, too.

We got nothing, really.

Razidlo spent much of the evening pacing the marble floors alone, watching as election judges trickled in with large boxes filled with ballots.

When the final votes came in just before 11 p.m., Marv Begin, who led an opposition group against the levy questions, went up to Razidlo and shook his hand, telling him, “Well, the best man won.”

Razidlo appeared to be caught off guard by Begin’s comment, then replied, “For our kids and community, you bet.”

The day after the 2007 operating levy referendum failed by a 2-to-1 margin, I was at Tornstrom Auditorium when then Superintendent Jerry Walseth spoke to his staff, teachers and other administrators.

Many people wiped tears from their eyes as they listened to Walseth talk about what lies ahead, namely $5.5 million in budget reductions. Some were angry but many just seemed sad. Walseth reminded his staff not to lose sight of the fact that 5,400 voters had supported them, even though 8,700 voters didn’t support the levy.

The community appeared divided in more ways than one levy election.

Now, four years later, two elementary schools have closed, teachers and other support staff have lost their jobs and students lost out on opportunities, such as learning how to fix cars and small engines and learning German or French. They also pay considerably more to participate in extra-curricular activities.

Tuesday’s levy wasn’t about restoring those cuts; it was about retaining what the district has now.

Fewer people voted Tuesday than they did in 2007. In all, 9,989 voters cast ballots in Tuesday’s school election out of 24,928 registered voters in the district, a turnout of 39.3 percent. In 2009, the last standalone school board election garnered a 17 percent voter turnout, said Debby Erickson, Crow Wing County elections coordinator. During the 2007 referendum, voter turnout was just over 60 percent.

So what made the difference between now and 2007?

Board members appeared to deliberate more this time about how much to ask voters for, hosting community listening sessions and giving surveys to get feedback. I heard from several people that said they trusted the district in its need for additional funds. One voter in particular remarked outside a polling site that she appreciates the transparency that Steve Lund, director of business services, has brought to his position. Lund said Tuesday many community members did call him and ask financial questions before the levy vote.

A strong showing of community members also worked behind-the-scenes to try to get these questions passed. More than 100 volunteers made phone calls, knocked on doors, wrote open forum letters, and took to the Dispatch’s website to counter negative responses about the referendum. They also had a Facebook page, a website and videos. It was an approach that seemed to work well.

Board members expressed happiness among themselves and other school staff with Tuesday’s voting results, but mostly they expressed gratitude for the community support. Board chair Jim Hunt said he felt humbled by all the support.

So what lies ahead for the school district? There may be some budget cuts for next year but not as devastating of cuts that would have had to be done if the levy questions hadn’t passed. Lund said the district needs to continue to lobby lawmakers about inequity in school funding.

So maybe it’s still too early for Razidlo to loosen up and celebrate — just quite yet. He’s got work to do.

JODIE TWEED may be reached at jodie.tweed@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5858.