FAIRMONT - Inside the elementary school, parents, educators and officials gathered Monday for the first of three "learning levy" meetings aimed at explaining the details of Fairmont Area Schools' upcoming referendum.
Outside, past and present students huddled on the playground, breaking off with a "1, 2, 3 ... Cardinals Make Cents!" before they took off in different directions, literature in hand, nervous but eager to take their message door to door.
"We want to let people know how great education can be provided to students simply with 25 cents a day," said Ariel Wiebe, one of several college students who returned to their high school alma mater Monday to help promote the referendum.
A?LOT?AT?STAKE?—?A woman wipes tears from her eyes as the person to her right talks about how students will be affected if voters do not pass Fairmont Area Schools levy referendum next month, at a “learning levy” meeting held Tuesday night at Fairmont Elementary.
The learning levy meeting had a good turnout, and though the opposition did not present itself, those gathered spent much of the time discussing reasons people plan to vote against the levy.
On Nov. 6, voters will be asked to decide if the district should raise its excess levy to $950 per student, up from the existing $500 levy, which is set to expire in a year. If the levy fails to pass, the school board already voted unanimously to cut students' co-curricular activities starting with the 2013-2014 school year. That includes high school sports, plays, music and art programs, and academic teams. The savings add up to $754,000 per year.
Diane Gerhardt led the meeting on Monday as the school board's spokesperson, presenting background information on the subject and answering the following questions:
o What led to this decision?
State aid has remained relatively static the past several years, with multiple funding freezes as the Legislature attempted to balance its own budget. Since 2002, when the last operating levy was approved, state aid has increased by about $623 per student. According to Gerhardt, that's not enough to cover rising costs, especially when taking inflation into account.
The school district has cut about $1.5 million from its operating budget in the past three years, by freezing wages; reducing administration, teaching and support staff; and closing two of its buildings.
o Didn't voters just pass a referendum for the school last year?
The referendum voters passed was for construction bonds to pay for closing Budd School and constructing the addition at Fairmont Elementary. The learning levy, however, was voted down 2-1.
"Levies are for learning, and bonds are for building," Gerhardt said.
o Why does the school board say it is cutting teachers, but then still employ those people the following school year?
Some of the people who were cut were hired back when other staff members retired or turned in their resignations, Gerhardt explained.
Some of the positions that have not been replaced include multiple administrators, secretaries, janitors and numerous teachers.
"If you want names I can give you names for all of them," said Gerhardt, offering her email and phone number to the public in order to answer any questions people might have.
Phy ed/health teacher Chris Engelby vouched for the cuts, saying staff reductions have caused her class size to increase from about 25 to 38 students, which also increases her workload.
"It's a misconception that teachers work from 8-3," she said. "... I was at school 'til 11 p.m. last night grading papers."
o How many kids will the cuts affect?
According to high school principal Dave Paschke, more than 50 percent of his 800-plus students participate in at least one of the district's co-curricular activities.
"You really are looking at thousands and thousands of hours," he said.
Having fun is not the main purpose of these activities, Gerhardt pointed out: Co-curriculars boost kids' educations, improve their chances of getting into good colleges, and keep them out of trouble.
o How difficult will it be for associations and clubs to take over the various activities?
The cost will obviously be substantial, and the fund-raisers never ending, said Gerhardt, but another challenge will be meeting Title IX gender equality rules. For every boys' sport - like football - the district must have a girls' sport, such as volleyball.
o How will people who don't have students in school be impacted if the levy fails?
Gerhardt said that realtors, car dealers and other business professionals have approached her to voice their concerns about Fairmont's ability to grow - or simply maintain the status quo - if the levy fails to pass and the school district cuts all but its core classes.
"We need a strong school system, so we have a strong community," said one levy supporter.
o Why will the school days be shortened? How will this save the district money?
The school board has said if the levy fails, students' school days will include just six periods instead of seven. The reason is not for cost savings, but because the district is required by law to give teachers one period for prep time. With no electives or study halls for students, high school teachers will have no free periods in their schedules, so the seventh period each day will be their prep time. At the elementary school, teachers will be taking over art, music and physical education for their classes, so just like at the high school, their prep time will be seventh period.
o What is the tax impact?
One rumor floating around is that property owners' taxes will go up $450 if the levy passes.
Not true, Gerhardt said.
The levy will generate $450 per student, but property tax increases will vary, depending on a home's market value. For a home valued at $75,000 - the average in Fairmont - property taxes would increase $87 per year, or about 24 cents a day.
Citizens who own farmland would be taxed by the value of their house, garage and just 1 acre of property, based on state law.
o How does Fairmont Area compare to other schools?
The current $500 per-pupil levy is the lowest in Martin County and the South Central Conference. The average learning levy for school districts in Minnesota is $942.
School board member Dan Brookens noted that other schools are in the same position as Fairmont, including New Ulm. In Waseca, he said, when the levy failed the school had to hike each of its activity rates by hundreds of dollars. Two years later, the district had no problem passing the same request.
o Is this just a scare tactic?
"These are not just threats," Gerhardt said.
The board already approved the cuts for next year. If the levy passes, the board will reinstate the programs.
School employees and elected officials are not allowed to run a Vote Yes campaign, but several citizens' groups are working on swaying public opinion on the levy. One group is meeting noon Wednesday in the CER office at Fairmont Elementary.
PETT - Parents and Educators Teaming Together - has promotional pamphlets available to hand out. PETT co-chair Steph Johnson can be reached at (507) 236-4118.
For more information on the levy, Gerhardt can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at (507) 236-3261.
Future school board listening sessions will be 9-10 a.m. Saturday and 10-11 a.m. Oct. 22 at Fairmont Elementary; or 6-7 p.m. Oct. 25 at Ceylon City Hall.