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Lake Superior district seeks bump in levy

It won't build any cushion back into the Lake Superior school district's budget, but a proposed $600-per-student operating levy might help keep the district from sliding into statutory operating debt.

It won't build any cushion back into the Lake Superior school district's budget, but a proposed $600-per-student operating levy might help keep the district from sliding into statutory operating debt.

The proposed levy would raise about $1.2 million a year for eight years, just about enough to replace the $1.3 million in staff cuts, bus routes and supply budgets the district eliminated a year ago.

Those cuts came after school district voters soundly defeated the district's 2006 request for a $950-per-student operating levy. The levy would have raised about$1.8 million each year for10 years, but voters rejected the proposal by a 2-1 margin.

With just seven weeks until the Nov. 6 election and the school levy likely to be the only item on the ballot, the district is looking for ways to get the word out. The district is required to send out notices about how much a person's property taxes would increase if the levy passed -- about $100 a year on a $100,000 home -- but otherwise, the district can't spend any money to persuade voters one way or another.

The district will rely on existing parent and teacher organizations, probably one mass mailing, a few public meetings and the district's Web site to share information, Rossetter said. Some district voters are still smarting from the public's decision years ago to build the new high school, and that has soured people on voting to spend any more money on the schools, Rossetter said.

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This year, the district is working under a balanced budget for the first time in several years, said Superintendent Phil Minkkinen. In past years, officials had dipped into the district's reserve funds to help balance the budget. But last year, officials went through a vigorous reworking of the operating budget, essentially building the district from the ground up and spending only the money it had.

The district eliminated the equivalent of 25 full-time teaching positions, three bus routes and numerous smaller reductions in supplies, maintenance and other operating costs.

"You'll find a very lean organization," Rossetter said. "But it's starting to look ugly in the classrooms."

There are seven upper elementary classrooms that have more than 30 students for one teacher, Minkkinen said. He's also heard from a number of upset parents along those eliminated bus routes.

"It's never an easy pill to swallow," Minkkinen said of the budget cuts.

The state has pledged a 1 percent increase in funding for the next school year. But with inflation bumping many of the district's costs up by about 3 percent, and most of the district's employees' contracts up for renewal soon, if the current levy request fails there will surely be another round of budget cuts, Minkkinen said.

JANNA GOERDT covers the communities surrounding Duluth. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5527 or by e-mail at jgoerdt@duluthnews.com .

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