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Out of the ashes of a failed referendum, Moose Lake hopes to 'rekindle the fire'

When Moose Lake School Superintendent Tim Caroline went to bed on Tuesday night, he was encouraged to hear the district's latest operating referendum proposal was enjoying a modest lead. After he got up at 2:30 a.m. and discovered the referendum had failed by a vote of 678 to 609, however, it was quite a different story.

"I laid awake the rest of the night trying to figure out just what we're going to do," he admitted.

Independent School District 97 had asked voters to approve an operating referendum that represented an increase of $150 per pupil. The district's existing referendum of $250 per pupil is due to expire in 2012, and the board proposed the amount be increased to $400 per pupil. If passed, the Moose Lake operating levy would have represented a tax increase of $63 per year, or $5.25 more per month, for a resident whose home is valued at $200,000. That same homeowner, who is currently paying $105 per year in support of school and student programs, would have paid a total of $168 per year under the proposed levy.

Caroline said he had originally been optimistic about the referendum's chances of passing, especially since the residents of the district have historically been very supportive of operating levies, the most recent of which were passed in 1995 and again in 2001. In retrospect, he wonders if the voters of the district had a true grasp of what truly is at stake.

"In some respects, there was no true sense of crisis here," Caroline said, "especially when you looked at what some other districts are going through. There were no layoffs in the past year, the class sizes were good, and the district was managing its money well.

"What we were trying to do [with this referendum] is prepare for the storm," stated Caroline. "Two years down the line, when there is no more stimulus money and no more jobs bill, that's when it's really going to hit us."

Despite the failed referendum, Caroline said he still believes the people of the district support what the school district is doing.

"I just think they believed that the money was always going to be there in the future, so the passion just wasn't there," said Caroline. "I can see that we need to get a clearer message out."

He clarified that while the district's most recent audit went well, its fund balance has already begun to go down and there's a "high possibility" that there will be no increases in funding from the state and, in fact, the funding levels may actually be decreased.

The district will now have one more chance to bring the proposal back before the voters next November before the current levy runs out in 2012. If the referendum should happen to fail once again, however, Caroline said the district would stand to lose some $300,000 in revenue, which he said would be "devastating" for the district. Not only would it stand to result in larger class sizes (which currently average 21-23 students per classroom), elimination of some electives, increased fees and an inability to keep up with routine textbook and technology purchases, but it would likely result in program cuts, which he said would inevitably mean staffing reductions as well.

Carline said he received a groundswell of e-mails and phone calls on Wednesday morning from residents of the district, indicating their dismay over the failed referendum.

"We have to tap into that energy to replace the activism that wasn't there this time around," he said. "Maybe now, that fire is going to get kindled."