Many wiped tears from their faces while others just sat somberly with their coworkers and listened to Brainerd Superintendent Jerry Walseth speak.
After school on Wednesday, a day after the Brainerd School District operating levy referendum was defeated 8,749 to 5,427, Walseth called a meeting at Tornstrom Auditorium to discuss the effects of the failed referendum with his staff.
When Walseth walked to the podium, his staff, teachers and administrators gave him a lengthy standing ovation. Walseth was visibly moved.
Walseth told school staff that as they all go through the process of making $5.5 million in budget reductions by next fall, they need to support one another. He told them it was natural to be angry and sad but not to take those emotions out on each other or on students whose parents or relatives may have voiced opposition against the referendum or the district.
Brainerd Dispatch/Clint Wood
"The perfect storm hit us," Walseth said of the reason the referendum failed. "But 5,400 voices joined you, and the irony of that is that it will impact the friends, family and children who voted for you. The 8,700 get to keep the dollars in their pockets."
Walseth said the first step is grieving. He said the administrative team will meet Thursday morning to discuss how each building's crisis team may help staff and students. One staff member voiced concerns about students who are saddened at the impending loss of their sports, activities or classes.
Walseth said the district is beginning the process of making the $5.5 million in budget reductions. The board will look at a per-pupil cost benefit analysis of each of the four smallest elementary schools and likely will make a recommendation on which two schools to close by the end of November.
YES - NO
- Lincoln School 486 484
- Whittier School 427 400
- Lowell School 327 589
- Harrison School 249 469
- Crow Wing Town Hall 176 485
- Baxter City Hall 1,424 1,285
- Nokay Lake Town Hall 116 348
- Daggett Brook Town Hall 32 165
- Fort Ripley Town Hall 100 269
- Garrison Town Hall 59 202
- Long Lake Township 101 373
- Maple Grove Township 58 249
- Roosevelt Town Hall 43 132
- St. Mathias Comm. Ctr 58 175
- Oak Lawn Town Hall 184 448
- Living Word N. Church 766 1,189
- East Gull Lake City Hall 134 187
- Lake Edward Town Hall 294 638
- Nisswa City Hall 393 670
TOTALS 5,427 8,749
He said this decision needs to be made immediately so the district can redraw its attendance boundaries for the remaining elementary schools and bus routes can be reconfigured.
Five bus routes likely will be eliminated, also eliminating school of choice for elementary parents, and students who live less than two miles from school will not be provided transportation.
Walseth said that in light of the failed Crosby-Ironton referendum and the need to close two Brainerd elementary schools after the district's own failed levy vote, he will recommend that the school board close open enrollment for students from neighboring districts for next fall because of classroom space constraints.
"We need to tell them we don't have space up front," Walseth said of C-I parents who wish to open enroll in the Brainerd district.
One staff member asked Walseth if the district was looking at closing open enrollment to students from neighboring districts who are already enrolled here. Walseth said his gut feeling is that the board may grandfather those students in, but he said he didn't know if that will be the case. He said it's a discussion the school board needs to have.
Is the school district better off having 43 students in a classroom or with fewer students in a classroom and less student funding for the district, Walseth asked. He said he wasn't sure.
Walseth said that in two weeks, the district will have made its seniority list of teaching staff. The district has more than 50 first-, second- and third-year teachers who will be placed on unrequested leave, and additional tenured teachers won't have their contracts renewed, Walseth said.
About 65 to 75 teaching positions were on the administrative list of recommended budget cuts if the referendum failed.
"We asked for a community mandate and it was not about education. No one was concerned about the job that you do," Walseth said. "We're going to go through this together and we're going to help one another."
"Maybe you're a better person than I am, but I don't understand how you can say the community is behind us," a teacher told Walseth. "I spent the night feeling we got a collective punch in the face. They don't value us. They're not supporting us. We're overpaid and work nine months a year. I don't feel it was a money issue. They stuck it to us and they don't support us. I want to do a happy dance on Marv's face (Marv Begin, spokesperson for the Citizens Concerned About School Taxation)."
Another staff member said it has been difficult dealing with negative comments and misinformation people have been spreading about the district.
"I understand the anger and I thank you for sharing that in here," Walseth said. "Don't paint everyone with the same brush. We can't stop people from distorting what they want to say. A lot of people search for rational on why they don't want to raise their taxes."
The day after Tuesday's election, board members expressed their disappointment in the failed referendum, and many blamed the fact that people are fed up with increasing taxes as the reason behind its failure.
"We let the community decide and they spoke very loudly," said board member Ruth Gmeinder, who was re-elected. "I think people are just tired of taxes. I don't really take it personally because all the incumbents were re-elected. I think what we really need to do is look at the outcomes of levies across Minnesota. A lot of rural ones failed. Equalizing some of the funding for the rural areas will be one of my biggest priorities, lobbying for adequate funding for rural areas. They are hurt the most and the election proved it."
"I'm very disappointed in the outcome but I accept the reality of it because it was an overwhelming vote," board member Lew Hudson said. "So I accept that. Where we go from here I will reserve judgment until the board has a chance to meet."
"I thought the vote was going to be close so I was very surprised at the result," board member Ruth Nelson said. "I don't think there was anything we could have done differently. I just think it was a tax issue. I think we needed to ask what we needed for it wasn't for new programs it was for no cuts. I think the question was appropriate."
"It became clear it wasn't about what we asked for but it was about taxes," board chair Kent Montgomery said. "This was one opportunity for people to voice their opposition about the taxes they're paying."
"Now we do have our work cut out for us and do have that message (from voters) to make the cuts and figure out where the district goes from here," board member Reed Campbell said. "It's just too bad it's going to affect the kids and the classrooms and will affect what options they have in their school programs over the next few years. The sad part of it is the loss of great new teachers that have come into our district with excitement and energy that is needed in this district. How many we'll be losing is yet to be seen. It was a rough night last night."
The school levy referendum drew 14,176 voters. Voters re-elected Campbell, Gmeinder and Montgomery to the board.
The vote totals for the five school board candidates: Campbell, 8,195 votes; Gmeinder, 7,565; Montgomery, 7,016; Mark J. Olson, 5,462; and Phillip McConville, 3,246.
Tuesday's election meant for a long night for many. Unorganized Territory was the last of 19 precincts reporting election results.
The ballots reached Washington Educational Services Building in Brainerd at 2:26 a.m. Wednesday. Steve Dickinson, Brainerd School District director of business services and an election official, said the long wait came after the election judges spent hours counting and recounting ballots as they tried to reconcile the fact that they had one more vote than signatures of voters signing in.
In the end, the best estimate appeared to be that one person neglected to sign in next to the marked "X" on the signature pages before voting.
School board members will canvass the votes at a board meeting noon Tuesday.
JODIE TWEED may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5858.
Staff Writer Renee Richardson contributed to this story.
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