Column: District made key changes for second referendum attempt

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 24, 2002

Many surely remember the

brouhaha over last fall’s Albert Lea school levy referendum: The mistrust, the bad blood, the accusations. Both the pro- and the anti- crowds were guilty of these transgressions.

I’m sure school board members and administrators have no trouble summoning those memories.

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Last year, most people who went to the polls said &uot;No,&uot; and they said it loudly. Those who wondered why could look at any number of public symptoms for evidence of discontent. There were the spiteful letters to the editor, the disgruntled callers to radio shows, and of course the clever old demagogue with a big yellow sign and, apparently, a lot of time on his hands.

That’s probably why the second go-round, which officially began this week, is starting off with a very different complexion than last year’s effort. It appears that school district and community leaders who support the idea have taken some valuable lessons from last year’s experience.

The school board voted to go ahead with another referendum Thursday, and it appears there are several key changes:

– First, the school is going to give people two questions. One will ask for a $365 per-pupil levy. That’s the basic need; that can keep things where they are now and probably avoid cuts for next year. The second question, authorizing an extra $125, would provide money to bring back some of the things that were cut last time around &045; busing for elementary kids more than a mile from school, some teachers, elective classes, arts programs and extracurriculars, to name a few possibilities.

I think this second question gives the referendum a measure of interactivity that it lacked last time. Last year, people were told what the school wanted and asked to vote yes or no. This time, they will be given more choices. They can either say &uot;No more money, period,&uot; and in effect vote for more cuts; they can say &uot;Okay, have some money, but not too much&uot; and effectively vote for the status quo; and they can say &uot;Have a little more, too,&uot; and basically vote to bring back some programs that were cut.

– Another positive change, it seems to me, is that they have shortened the term of the levy.

Last time, voters were asked to impose the extra levy for ten years. I heard many voters say that ten years was too long. They didn’t want to commit to a full decade.

This year, the school is only going for a five-year commitment. This seems to show that they listened to some of the concerns last time and have responded. That’s a good sign.

– Part of the different feel this time is that the school and the community have been through it before, and we all saw the results: $1.1 million in budget cuts.

Last time, there was speculation about what would happen if the referendum failed. But the school did not provide specifics.

Now, the referendum presents an easy-to-understand, easy-to-visualize choice: Bring back some of the stuff that was cut last time, maintain the status quo, or ask for more cuts. They still can’t tell us specifically what would be cut, but based on what happened last time, it’s easy to guess we’d see more teachers cut, more electives gone, and more loss of sports and non-athletic activities.

– Finally, it appears that we can expect a more vigorous effort from the community group that’s backing the referendum. Their efforts have already begun.

If things go as I think they should, this group will be the most visible force in favor of the levy. Voters seem to distrust the &uot;officials&uot; like the superintendent and the school board members. Maybe the message will be received differently if it comes from a group of regular citizens who are’t perceived as insiders.

– There will still, of course, be plenty of questions about the school’s fiscal policies. One person has already publicly taken the school to task about its attempt to send buses out into neighboring districts to collect new students. These kinds of questions will keep coming up, and they deserve answers. In the case of the buses, it seems clear that the extra government aid the students bring in more than offsets the extra busing cost, and the district will still be losing more students than it’s gaining.

That brings to mind one more lesson everyone can learn from last time: If backers want the referendum passed, voters’ concerns should be taken seriously and addressed before they take root and become reasons to vote &uot;no.&uot;

Dylan Belden is the Tribune’s managing editor. His column appears Sundays.