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Referendum dominates school board discussions

WORTHINGTON -- Confronted with harsh budget realities and frustrated by their inability to predict the future, District 518 Board of Education members Wednesday attempted to arrive at a consensus on where to set a November operating referendum.

Without a funding booster shot, the future looks bleak, said accountant Pat Morphew.

"If we don't get any more help from the Legislature, and if we don't pass a referendum, we make $1 million in cuts for each of the next four years, and we still end up in Statutory Operating Debt," he said.

From there, Wednesday morning's special meeting focused on setting the size and length of a November 2006 operating referendum. Though some board members wanted an eight-year referendum, the consensus was to establish it at six.

Setting the size of the referendum inspired more disagreement. Always present in the discussion was the memory of last year's result, when a five-year, $900-per-pupil referendum failed with 1,575 voting in favor and 1,921 voting against. Initial proposals for setting the 2006 levy ranged from $800 to $1,100.

"You can do all that work to pass a referendum, and then you're going to sit there and not have what you need to operate a district," said Steve Schnieder, who urged his colleagues not to settle for too little.

Lowell Nystrom said he supported "at least" a $1,000 per pupil referendum, while Lori Dudley remarked, "I came in at $900 to $1,100, but I think $900 is too low." But Joel Lorenz opted for caution.

"The point is we lost the $900. ... I just think we can get by with $800," Lorenz said. "I think we can manage that."

Linden Olson favored a larger figure, but chairman Bob Jirele expressed skepticism about what local residents would be willing to accept.

"I just think it'll be suicide to go ahead and ask people to support a greater referendum than what they just turned down," Jirele said.

Schnieder proposed a more aggressive stance, arguing that he doesn't want to sell students short.

"I don't think that $700, $800 gets us to where we need to be," he said. "This doesn't fix those problems, it just puts us in line for more of the same types of reductions. It's going to take some work. So why go through all that work if it's not going to solve our problems?"

Considerations over the size of the referendum originated from an earlier discussion on how deep board members are willing to dip into the district's fund balance. The consensus was they would spend from $200,000 to $500,000 of the balance, but no more.

The fund balance is complicated, Joel Wiltrout said.

"It doesn't mean we have money in the bank," Wiltrout said. "I think the public has to understand it's not a savings account that we have."

Schnieder concurred.

"We have to make sure the public knows we can't keep buffering this impact for them over and over again," he said. "They have to realize this does catch up, and it does have an impact."

While board members embraced their role in educating voters, they also called for greater community support than evident in 2005.

"If it's only going to come from the school board, I think (the referendum) will fail again," Olson said. "If we don't get some substantial support from the community and our leaders, I think it will fail again."

Nystrom said he wants to see more support from community leaders.

"We can talk about community leaders until we're blue in the face," Wiltrout responded. "We need, basically, the backbone of the community -- people who are working at an hourly rate -- we need those people to step forward to get this referendum to pass."

Doug Wolter

Doug Wolter is the Daily Globe sports editor. He served as sports reporter, then sports editor, news editor and finally managing editor at the Daily Globe for 22 years before leaving for seven years to work as night news editor at the Mankato Free Press in Mankato. Doug now lives in Worthington with his wife, Sandy. They have three children and seven grandchildren. Doug, retired after a lengthy career in fast-pitch softball, enjoys reading, strumming his acoustic guitar and hanging around his grandchildren. He also writes books on fiction. Two of his stories, "The Genuine One" and "The Old Man in Section 129" have been distributed through a national publisher.

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