The news was grim.
Two elementary schools would be closed. Eighteen of Brainerd High School's 29 high school league sports/activities would be eliminated. About 65 to 75 teaching positions districtwide would be cut.
If Brainerd School District taxpayers do not support the proposed $5.75 million operating levy referendum on Nov. 6, the district likely will be making its deepest cuts ever, changing not only the face of education here but the impact would reverberate throughout the community, school officials said.
"I think this is the most monumental decision our community has faced in its educational history," said Brainerd Superintendent Jerry Walseth. "This is reality."
The Brainerd School Board met Thursday to find out what $5.5 million in budget cuts in one year would look like if the proposed operating levy failed Nov. 6. They also learned what the tax impact would be for taxpayers if the referendum does pass. Following this meeting, the finance committee met and recommended that the school board on Monday adopt resolutions calling for an operating levy referendum and for a special election for the referendum.
Administrators made a list of recommended budget cuts for board members that would need to be made for the 2008-09 school year if the levy does not pass. They recommended $5.5 million in budget reductions to make sure they reduce enough beyond the anticipated $5 million budget deficit and because they expect to lose open enrollment students if the district drops many of its athletic programs and activities and course offerings. The district has about 300 open enrollment students from neighboring school districts.
Walseth at times spoke passionately about the impact of a failed operating levy referendum on the school district. A failed levy could mean a loss of at least 65-75 teaching positions and an unknown number of support staff positions. The district employs about 500 teachers. Walseth compared this worst-case scenario to another closing of the Potlatch paper mill in the community. The district has one shot at passing this levy referendum, he said. If it does not pass, $5.5 million in budget reductions would need to be made before the 2008-09 school year. He said the referendum is a question posed to community members about what they value in their public school system.
"One way or another the future of this community is going to change," Walseth told the board. "This is all about the quality of our schools. It's what is on the line."
"It just makes me sick to even talk about this," board member Ruth Gmeinder said of the proposed budget cuts if the levy fails.
The proposed $5.75 million operating levy referendum would revoke the existing $199.24 per pupil levy and replace that with a new $986 per pupil operating levy, a net change of $786.76. The proposed referendum would increase each year by the rate of inflation and be applicable for 10 years unless otherwise revoked or reduced. This referendum would eliminate the district's immediate financial shortfall, restore a minimum fund balance, allow for additional funds for curriculum and work force preparation programs and fund all-day, everyday kindergarten at all eight elementary schools.
Walseth said the district and its board understand the tax impact this referendum would have on taxpayers. He said district administrators are available to make presentations about this proposed referendum to any group or organization. Call the district office to schedule a presentation, said Walseth.
Walseth said this may be the most challenging discussion about education that the community has had.
Steve Dickinson, director of business services, said one dollar spent on the operating levy referendum breaks down in the following categories: 86 cents to eliminate the immediate budget shortfall, 6 cents for all-day, everyday kindergarten, 5 cents to restore the unreserved fund balance, 2 cents for curriculum enhancement and 1 cent for work force preparation.
Brainerd is the 28th largest school district in the state. Dickinson said of the top 30 largest school districts, the average operating levy is currently $870.
Kristin Hanson of Ehlers and Associates Inc. said they won't know until after Sept. 14 how many school districts in Minnesota will be seeking operating levy referendums this fall but said her firm is working with 50 school districts seeking referendums and expects that number to grow. Dickinson said he anticipates about one-third of school districts in the state will be seeking referendums Nov. 6.
JODIE TWEED may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5858.
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