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School levy renewal shows importance to community

Park Rapids Schools' "connection to the community" is to be credited for the $1.1 million operating levy meeting voter approval, superintendent Glenn Chiodo told the school board this week.

Fifty-four percent of Park Rapids School District voters approved continuing the levy of $600 per student per year for the next five years, with 2,937 voting in favor, 2,464 opposed.

Statewide, few referendums gained approval, Chiodo told the board, and those that did were mostly renewals.

"It's a partnership with the community," he said. "We're moving away from us and them. They see stability. We still have a lot of work ahead, but from where we came from, it's been a significant and long journey," he said Tuesday night.

The initial operating levy came after three unsuccessful attempts, Chiodo recalled after the meeting. The district went to the voters after auditors found the district to be in statutory operating debt in 2003, close to $250,000 in the red.

"It was a difficult time," he recalled. "We had a cloud hanging over our head."

The district made significant cuts and with the help of the Orange Cross network, the "crisis" message was out.

"The community stepped up and supported it," Chiodo said of the initial referendum. "It was huge," he said. "We were at a crossroads.

"After it passed, the hard work was just beginning," he said. "The public put their faith in us. It was no longer 'us and them.' It became a 'we' mentality. We had to step up, demonstrate fiscal responsibility."

The message this go-round: "Let's keep a good thing going."

"The community was comfortable with the message," Chiodo told the board Tuesday night. "We will continue to make tough decisions and will continue to be a partner in the community. And we'll stay away from where we've been."

Gary Gauldin commended Chiodo's "candid and professional approach" when he headed out into the community to explain the district's position.

"Staff members felt relief," high school principal Jeff Johnson said of response to the voters' decision, teachers expressing "a huge thanks to the community."

"The district has scaled back, but that plays to the comfort of the community," Chiodo said of the schools' "stability."

"We are going in a better direction than maybe ever before. My presentations were much easier. I wasn't asking for forgiveness," he said. "Previous administrations didn't do it wrong. But with so many good things happening, it's gotten easier.

"I didn't have to answer questions, just deliver the message," Chiodo said. "It had a much different feel."

Chiodo said he fielded community questions on the student success co-coordinators, Beth Palm and Mari Jo Lohmeier hired to enhance fifth grade students' academic and social achievements.

Community members "are excited about what we are trying to do," he said of "providing additional paths for students.

"It's fun to talk plans as opposed to survival," Chiodo said of the district's finances. "People I talked to were focused on where we are going. The questions weren't suspicious. I never felt the questions had a hidden agenda - much different than in the past."

Board member Stephanie Carlson agreed. "The district has gained the public's trust."

Adding sections in the lower grades was previously "unthinkable," Gauldin said, adding, "now it's time to look at the high school."

In other action, the board:

n Heard updates on the student success co-coordinators.

Mari Jo Lohmeier was hired in partnership with St. Joseph's Area Health Services, Chiodo expressing a huge "thank you" to CEO Ben Koppelman,

Two coordinators, Chiodo explained, will allow both academic and social mentoring.

The pioneer program is gaining interest among other districts, Chiodo said.

The position, he said, came after several months of discussion and refinement.

"This ties in to everything we are doing," he said.

"The ultimate goal is to assist in decreasing the dropout rates, to keep kids in school and be successes."

n Approved, as per former conversations, moving ahead with an outdoor skating rink on the Depot lots.