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Perham superintendent says district's budget is "train wreck"

PERHAM - Calling the Perham-Dent School District's budget in three years a "financial train wreck," the district's superintendent says she is looking for ways to trim the budget now.

This fall, Perham voters rejected an operating levy that would have increased the district's revenue, and district officials aren't counting on increased state aid. So, the Perham School Board is again evaluating its budget and looking to cut.

School officials say based on present funding, enrollment and expense information, the school is expected to fall into statutory operating debt, with a projected $625,000 deficit by the 2011-12 school year. By 2012-13, the deficit could reach a staggering $2.1 million.

If a school district falls into statutory operating debt, the state can take over administration of the district.

Superintendent Tamara Uselman says district officials will present the budget situation to the public over the next couple months and seek input as to what should be cut.

District officials plan public meetings and will seek input at regular monthly board meetings between now and February.

Final cuts will be acted on at the March 15 school board meeting.

The good news for the district? Student enrollment this year is 60 students more than projected, meaning the district is receiving state aid it hadn't anticipated.

However, since the levy vote failed this fall, the school district still faces "harsh reductions," said Uselman.

Several school board members have argued the district still has room to spend down some of its reserve funds, which now sit at $350,000 - which is about one-third the amount the state recommends a district of its size have.

Board Chairman Jim Rieber noted that at one time the district's reserve was as low as $100,000.

And Board member Arnie Thompson said that whatever needs to be spent from reserves to maintain education programs should be spent.

"If we don't keep up our facility and what we offer now, people will drive 15 to 20 miles to take their kids to one of the districts that have passed referendums," Thompson said. "That will make our situation even worse, and then we may never be able to come back."