Referendum supporters pack school board meeting

About 400 people - from little ones perched on their dads' shoulders and seated on their moms' laps to grandpas and grandmas - packed the Century School cafetorium for Monday night's board meeting as promised.

About 400 people - from little ones perched on their dads' shoulders and seated on their moms' laps to grandpas and grandmas - packed the Century School cafetorium for Monday night's board meeting as promised.

The turnout represented organizers committed to convincing the school board to put an operating levy to a vote again this fall.

After four consecutive "no" votes, the school board had decided not to try again. Monday night, the board didn't change its position, but it wasn't for lack of persuasive speakers.

"We wanted to come in person to tell you we are ready to take up the torch of leadership for education and progress," said parent Denese Jokela. "And we wanted to come in person to tell you we are ready to go out into the voting community and effect change."

Aaron Kjenaas, parent of a kindergartner, told the school board they're not just being "idealistic" or "na?ve."


"I'm here today to turn that notion on its head," Kjenaas said.

"We are caring parents and educators who want the best for our kids. But this doesn't mean we are na?ve or unrealistic. We are educated, concerned citizens. This is not just about us. It's about everybody in Park Rapids," he said.

"Education is a win-win proposition," Kjenaas said. In the early 70s, Minnesota ranked 24th in per capita income. We were about in the middle of the 50 states in terms of how wealthy our citizens were. A 25-year bi-partisan push increased our education funding dramatically, exceeding what most states spent. By the year 2000, Minnesota ranked fourth in per capita income. The more money a country, state or local district invests in education, the more money its citizens earn."

Further, Kjenaas pointed out, the federal government has required more schools to spend money due to No Child Left Behind, but has not provided all the funds to implement it. The state has changed how it funds education, too, leaving most districts, including Park Rapids, with inadequate funding.

"I travel all over the state and if you think this problem is isolated to Park Rapids, you are mistaken," Kjenaas said. "This is a statewide problem. Most communities had referendums last year, and the majority of them passed."

Those who benefit when communities invest in education include businesses, Kjenaas said. They gain better-educated employees with more money to spend, Kjenaas said.

Two visions

Hubbard County is going to grow, Kjenaas said. "Who do we want to attract, and how do we want to define our community?" he asked. Answering his own question, Kjenaas painted the scenario of a community with a vision of "keeping your taxes low" versus one that offers families a "well-educated, 21st Century community."


Retired people benefit, too, he said. "Because their quality of life depends on well-educated local people to provide services at every level," and because for every dollar spent on education, a community saves $3 in decreased crime expenses.

In addition, he said, "The more money spent on education in an area, the better it is for property values." While that may sound like it means higher taxes, no one wants their property to be worth less, Kjenaas added.

In addition to businesses and retired people, parents want their kids to be able to compete in a changing world, a global economy. "Things are different than they were 20 years ago," he said, quoting from Thomas Friedman's book, "The World is Flat."

"When he was growing up sitting at the dinner table, his mother would say, 'Eat all your food; there are starving children in India who want your food.' In contrast, he now tells his daughters, 'do all your homework; there are motivated kids in India who want your job.'"

Kelli Schweigart, co-founder of Panthers for Education, a student group, said what's important to her is a good education for her younger sisters, who look forward to the same good experiences she's had in high school.

"I see fellow students, parents and community members," Schweigart said. "We're all here for a common reason. People will ask what makes our community different? We do, because we care enough to be here tonight and to try our hardest."

Going forward

Kjenaas concluded the presentation with an appeal to the school board chairman to recommend a "community-driven operating levy referendum be placed on the November ballot.


Addressing the board, Kjenaas added, "We realize you have made a commitment not to propose a fifth consecutive referendum. We understand our credibility is at state. We want to give you what you need in order to go forward with this without compromising your integrity.

"What do you need from us?" Kjenaas asked.

Board chair Frank Schaap fielded the request, saying the board wasn't going to make a decision yet.

"We have been here for four straight years. There's nothing new here," he said, explaining that while some new individuals may be involved, the board needs to hear from those who say "no."

Schaap said his feeling is that at some point, people stopped listening. "It appears that the community has to get to a bottom," he said. Everybody has their own sense of where that may be, Schaap continued. "I don't know if the majority have gotten there.

"I honestly thought we were going to have a referendum pass every year," Schaap continued, adding the "no" votes have led him to believe he doesn't have a grasp on the pulse of the community.

Kjenaas acknowledged the school board and others have worked hard. The idea, he explained, is to come up with good reasons "to vote yes, to get it done."

"The solution is how do we get there," said Schaap, inviting everyone to come back for the next meeting.


Board member Gary Gauldin also spoke, saying, "no one is more disappointed than I am at the state we're in right now."

To put the question on the ballot, Gauldin said he would like to see a petition with at least 1,000 names on it, since it will take about 2,000 votes for a referendum to pass.

'What's changed?'

"It's not about saving face," Gauldin added. "It's about doing the thing that is best for kids. I don't know what's changed in Park Rapids in a year. I haven't talked to a 'no' voter who's changed their mind." (Later, he said, he has talked to one, but only one.)

"The difference is we're here tonight and we're ready for action... We're here to tell you we're not just going to vote, but actively to commit to working on this in the fall, to making it pass," said Jokela.

"This is a caring community and we're your army. You're the generals. Give us an order," she said.

Schaap asked for a petition with 1,200 names on it by June 1, promising only that the board would receive it and consider the request.

If 15 percent of registered voters petition for one, the law requires the school board to place the referendum on the ballot.


Jokela offered to deliver a petition with at least 1,200 names by May 15.

(According to the Hubbard and Becker County auditor's offices, the Park Rapids School District has 7,719 registered voters, so 1,158 signatures would meet the 15 percent the law requires.)

In a brief meeting following the referendum committee presentation, the school board:

  • Approved post-retirement health care plans for current certified staff and accepted resignations from four staff members contingent on the district's offer of a medical benefit of $400 a month for five years.

Retiring will be Ron Pederson, who has taught 32 years; Sandy Gunderson, 34 years; Sonja Tangen, 35 years and Jackie Alto, 25 years.
Also retiring is Diane Melchert, a paraprofessional for 22 years.

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