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'Death by a thousand cuts' -- Perham-Dent School District looks at $500,000 in cuts

Facing nearly a half million dollars in cuts this year, and the prospect of another $1.5 million the three following years, Perham-Dent school officials are starting to aim the axe at specific budget items.

"Death by a thousand cuts...that's what it is starting to feel like," said School Superintendent Tamara Uselman Feb. 11.

Fine arts, music, elementary coaches, one-act play, yearbook, National Honor Society and the Dean of Students position would all be slashed, based on a preliminary list of proposed cuts.

Support staff, including the para-professionals, clerical workers and custodians would be reduced by dozens of hours per week.

With some of the most desperate verbiage to date, the superintendent, staff and several school board members are calling for an increase in taxes.

"We're now looking at losing art and music. It's untenable," said middle school principal Krueger. "...We're hanging above a fiery pit, and we're being roasted. The staff feels it, and the kids feel it."

Calling for a referendum to increase operating revenue, board member Arnie Thompson said the schools will "hatchet ourselves down to the point that we hurt kids."

Superintendent Uselman stated clearly "We have to raise revenue--that's my position."

But the school board didn't appear unanimous on the need to increase taxes--at least not yet, and certainly not this year.

Uselman's preliminary list of suggested cuts comes in the midst of an aggressive campaign to gather input from taxpayers and parents.

Three informational meetings were held last week, with Uselman and business manager Kristi Werner explaining that the Perham-Dent schools will slip into Statutory Operating Debt next year if at least $480,000 is cut from the budget.

Online surveys have also been promoted. As of Monday, 70 students, 61 residents and 64 teachers had filled out the surveys.

More than 20 people, most of them school staff, attended the Feb. 11 Perham-Dent board meeting--with several voicing their opinions on the continued cuts.

Unfortunately, even if the board rushed an increased levy referendum to the voters, it wouldn't save the school from a projected $500,000 shortfall next year--so another round of cuts is virtually unavoidable. This follows nearly $700,000 in cuts in 2007.

"We've been cutting for several years...every time we talk and we wait (to initiate a referendum) we lose more programs," said principal Krueger.

But board members Jim Rieber and Dave Schornack were leery of pushing a referendum vote to November 2008.

With a high profile presidential election and a high voter turnout, the risk is great that the referendum will fail, said Rieber.

He favored a continued, intensified public information campaign to gather information before going to the voters for more money.

"It's hard to put a plan together if we don't know what the customer values," said Rieber. "What parents wanted in a school ten years ago may not be the same today."

For example, said Rieber, parents may be willing to sacrifice class size in order to retain programs. Conversely, the public may want to eliminate extra- curricular programs in order to maintain core English-math-science programs and smaller class sizes.

Board member Schornack agreed that more input is needed from the public.

"I just don't know if this is the year" to initiate a tax-hike referendum, said Schornack.

Mike Hamann said the past eight months have been "the most painful" he had experienced over his many years on the school board.

"We have to cut," said Hamann, shaking his head in frustration. "We don't have a choice."