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New elementary school vote fails in Bemidji

Northern Township Clerk Mary Israelson opens the polling place to hang the American flag at 7 a.m. to find a line of voters waiting to cast their ballots. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Bemidji school officials did not receive the community support they were hoping for.

In complete but unofficial results Tuesday, 67 percent of voters turned down a $13 million bond package to build a new elementary school.

In raw numbers, 4,291 voters said "no" to the bond issue, while 2,086 voters said "yes," according to unofficial results from the Beltrami County Auditor's Office.

The school board will officially canvass election results next Tuesday.

With most voters disapproving of the bond package, the school district will not go forward with plans to have a K-5 school built.

Building a new school was the school board's long-term solution to solving a classroom space shortage caused by an upward trend in kindergarten enrollment.

The school was to be modeled after Lincoln Elementary, 1617 5th St. NE, and located on the Bemidji High School campus. It was expected to be completed within 13 months - in time for the building to open for the start of the 2013 school year.

School Board Member Carol Johnson said she was disappointed, but not surprised.

"In the times we're living in right now, we certainly have to respect the voters' decision," she said.

School Board Member Ann Long Voelkner, who also served as co-chair of the "Bemidji Proud" campaign, said she had anticipated a "positive vote."

"We'll have to obviously explore additional alternatives that may not have been the quality we hoped to provide with a new school, but we expect our children to still get a quality education they have been getting," she said.

Long Voelkner added the failed bond issue may be an indication of a regional or statewide issue since numerous school districts sought local support this year to help fund education because of reduced state aid.

Tough decision

For some voters, marking "yes" on the ballots was an easy decision because it meant improving quality of life and giving elementary schools room to breathe.

Walking out of Lincoln Elementary School Tuesday with a red "I voted" sticker fixed to his jacket, Robert Zarrett seemed confident in his vote.

"I grew up in a family of educators. It's our future," Zarrett said. "I've listened to my mom enough to know crowding is not good in schools and we need a new school. I don't care if it does raise the taxes. We should be doing that for our kids and our grandkids."

Charles and Mary Smith, who also voted at Lincoln Elementary, said they voted to support the school system. Neither currently have children in the school district, but both agreed "children are what it's all about."

But building a new school doesn't come free, which was a major concern among many voters. Voting "yes" meant agreeing to a property tax increase during a time when budgets are already tight. Taxpayers who own a home valued at $100,000 were being ask to pay an additional $15 per year, or $38 per year for owners of homes valued at $200,000.

After voting at Central Elementary School, Mark Farabee said he voted because he felt it was his civic duty. He said now is not a good time to be paying for a new school.

"I don't think we can afford another school right now when we have one sitting empty, unused up State Highway 89," Farabee said, referring to Deer Lake Elementary School which closed several years ago. "I don't know what shape it's in, but that's the way I feel about that."

Not having specific details about the proposed new school, such as the projected costs of staffing, busing and maintenance and its exact location, also weighed on voters' minds.

What now?

While a new school is no longer an option for this year, the issue of enrollment and classroom space does not appear to be going away anytime soon.

Over the next five years district officials are expecting the school district to grow by approximately 466 students, based on birth rates in zip codes 56601 and 56619 and the resulting kindergarten enrollment five years later.

Elementary schools will see a growth of 330 students over the next five years, school officials project.

The school board may revisit earlier options, including four other long-term options that could alleviate the classroom space shortage.

One of the options would put fifth-graders at Bemidji Middle School and eighth-graders in Bemidji High School.

Other options would be eliminating all-day kindergarten and moving to half-time kindergarten or all-day, every-other-day kindergarten; move to a four-day week; move to an extended school year; or turn Paul Bunyan Elementary into a permanent early learning center and construct a new early learning center.

The school board could also decide to ask voters the same question again next year, but the district's current operating levy expires in 2013. The board has not discussed whether it will seek voter renewal.

In the meantime, the board could also decide to implement short-term ideas, such as adding portable classrooms to Northern and Solway schools, reopening Deer Lake Elementary (which could accommodate 170 students) or building classroom additions onto Northern, Solway and Lincoln schools.

"Our issue of overcrowding is not going to go away," Johnson said. "We are dealing with increasing enrollment. That is a fact. We have to come up with something and keep the very best interest of our kids in mind."