Speakers promote 'yes' vote

If anyone came to Monday night's levy referendum forum wondering why the Park Rapids Schools and schools statewide need to pass operating levy referendums or why the vote Nov. 7 has become about the community as much as the school, their question...

If anyone came to Monday night's levy referendum forum wondering why the Park Rapids Schools and schools statewide need to pass operating levy referendums or why the vote Nov. 7 has become about the community as much as the school, their questions were answered.

Superintendent Glenn Chiodo said the first time he met with staff here in the fall of 2003, the idea he tried to convey was "we have to take care of our own house first and then move forward and try to convey a consistent message to the community."

Decisions about budget cuts have not always been popular, he said, "but we have followed the plan all the way through.

"Now, we are at a real turning point. We as a community have to decide what our school will look like."

Chiodo said he has been interviewed by many media sources and Park Rapids is receiving attention statewide because of the proposal to cut co-curricular activities. The attention is on the Park Rapids community, he said. "We have tried to do everything we could, but we have flat out run out of options," Chiodo said.


The proposed levy referendum of $600 per pupil unit for five years isn't really enough, Chiodo added, but reflects the district "trying to find something that works both for the community and the school. It still puts the onus on us and will hold us accountable.

While the proposed cuts in co-curriculars have gotten a lot of notoriety, he said, it is important to remember, "cutting more classroom teachers is just as vital to the education of our kids.

"This is a critical stage. It has to do with your school and your future. We hope people will look at it that way and I encourage you to get out and vote and encourage others to do the same."

Statewide perspective

Mary Ciccone, executive director of Parents United, described her organization as "unapologetic advocates for Minnesota public schools."

Her presentation linked the state legislature to what's happening in local schools and why they need to pass operating levy referendums.

The state constitution doesn't mandate taking care of prisons, roads or sports stadiums, but it does require a "uniform system of public schools," Ciccone said.

The state funds schools on a formula that includes "adjusted marginal cost pupil units - that's your son or daughter," she said.


Since 1992, the state's formula has increased an average of 1.14 percent per year while the consumer price index rose 3.1 percent per year, according to Ciccone. "And, as in all labor intensive sectors, health care and education expenses grew an average of 5 percent annually."

At the same time, state policies reformed property taxes. Rates for businesses were reduced and "cabin people" successfully lobbied the legislature with the argument that they don't live in a community all year, so they shouldn't have to pay for the schools and social services. Farmers also got a break on their property taxes, said Ciccone.

"All these policies made sense. You can argue whether they were right or wrong all day long, but it reduced revenue and no new source came in the door."

At about the same time - in 2001, the state accepted the liability of funding 85 percent of public school costs. The legislature passed half of the plan. The liability was accepted without the revenue to support it. "The effect was to destabilize the funding for schools," said Ciccone.

Meanwhile, she continued, requirements for public schools grew: testing, standards, special education mandates, the cost of transportation, English Language Learning, health and safety mandates, drug and alcohol abuse education, and more, including the "100 percent rule," the federal No Child Left Behind Act."

Ciccone said where her children go to school, it costs $60,000 to test all the third grade students and tests are given to all students in Grades 3-10.

In 2005, the state "didn't pour money into schools. The state budget gave 4 percent per year for the two-year biennium when schools needed 5 percent "and it came from property taxes. Property taxes increased statewide by $139 million."

Counties can raise money; cities can raise money and both have had local government aid cut and had to go to property taxes to make up the difference.


"Schools are the only public entity that has to go to voters for a tax increase," she emphasized. "And the state handed you an operating levy and some money for your local effort."

In 1990, 47 percent of schools in Minnesota had operating levies in place; in 2006, nearly 90 percent had levies in place, according to Ciccone.

The significance, she said, is that in 2020-30, Minnesota's labor force will have shrunk from nearly 450,000 today to less than 150,000, and beginning in 2011 for the first time, more people will be turning 65 than will be of school age (5-17).

"This is about the viability of the state, not just schools and Park Rapids. It is about the workforce in 2020," Ciccone said.

"The social compact in Minnesota has always been to provide a quality education for our children so that they can succeed economically and govern themselves in a democracy," she said.

"I tell people if they don't care about our schools for a lot of reasons, I say, 'I want to make sure when I'm in the old folks home, they know the difference between a millimeter and a milliliter.'"

Local leaders have a say

Of all the community leaders who spoke, Helen Keezer, chair of the St. Joseph's Area Health Services board of directors, may have provided the most stunning example of the importance of passing a levy referendum.


Keezer had spent eight hours Monday in Fargo interviewing candidates for the new chief executive officer (CEO) position at St. Joseph's, a vacancy that will be open when Peter Jacobson goes to Fergus Falls.

Keezer said she and others interviewed candidates from Minnesota, Montana, Kansas, Michigan and elsewhere and more than two had seen the news about Park Rapids' levy referendum. "They have 2-, 3- and 4-year-old children and were very open," Keezer said. "The first question they asked us was "When is the election?'

"It really opened our eyes because several of these candidates would be superior CEOs, but as a search committee, we are concerned," said Keezer. "We may have to look at our timeline, because these candidates would not come potentially if this referendum is not passed."

Keezer added, "It has been an exciting time at our hospital, with a $26 million building project and plans to break ground in April. If we do not get this referendum passed, how are we going to recruit any of our physicians, pharmacists and nurses? How are we going to maintain the hospital staff that we have?"

Keezer, who has lived in the community for 14 years, said there is nothing more important to her than education. "Education and health care keep a community viable."

Also speaking was Kathy Grell, chair of the Hubbard County Regional Economic Development Commission.

She said for the commission, "education equals jobs.

"Make sure you know when you're talking about the school, it's not just students and teachers, we have to try to retain business."


Grell expanded on what Ciccone had pointed out as true about baby boomers leaving the workforce and the shrinking number of young people who will be expected to replace them. "It is imperative," Grell said, "that every student graduates and becomes a contributing factor to the community. That's why every school needs to be healthy and strong. And now we're relying on local levies to do this.

"This is a global economy. Our workforces have the ability to be global too. So as a community, we are competing not just for business, but an educated workforce to help us become economically viable.

"No one is going to choose to come to a community and live if it doesn't have a strong school system," said Grell. "Not passing the referendum will be absolutely devastating. "

"The three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic) are expected," Grell continued. "This is about more."

Participation in co-curricular activities creates well-rounded students and employees who can "think, react, make good decisions and problem solve."

Not only would not passing a levy referendum be devastating, Grell repeated, "it will have devastating effects and affect us for years and years to come."

More from business

John Kelly, owner of North Star Orthodontics, said the dental lab in Park Rapids is one of the top orthodontic laboratories in the nation. "I'm very proud and this community should be proud," he said.


"We have hired a lot of students from this community."

He reiterated what Grell said about expecting students who can read and write. "I guess I take that for granted," said Kelly.

What employers look for is "students who have a team concept and the kind of creativity you get through a solid music department and sports program. It's all part of being a well educated individual."

While Kelly said the community won't "fall apart if the referendum doesn't pass, the community's future is in jeopardy and it would be a large setback."

Kelly also said the community needs "to start the healing process. Forget about the swimming pool or what education facility was closed. People made decisions with the best information they had available and were trying to do things for the greater good.

"It's always in hindsight we can make better decisions, but if we're going to move forward, we have to use reason and vote for this referendum," Kelly said.

"This community has been wonderful for us. The great employees we have and it's a result of having a solid educational system."

Kelly also spoke about his involvement in the successful bond referendum to build the new Century School. "People said I was crazy to get involved. It will never pass. Maybe it was crazy, but I am grateful we have such a beautiful facility," he said.

Finally, Kelly said, that while he is "solidly behind" passing the levy referendum, there is sometimes a perception that business does not want to pay their fair share. "I say that in order to be successful and competitive, we have to pay the price."

Dianne Dennis of Coldwell Banker Clack & Dennis Real Estate said she has been in the real estate business in Park Rapids for more than 20 years.

From the perspective of real estate values there are two things to consider, Dennis said.

One is when people are considering relocating, they ask about the school and health care. "I've never been more proud than when instead of driving by the old Middle School, we could start driving people past our beautiful new facility."

The levy referendum, Dennis said, "is no longer about the school. It is about the entire community.

"Just within my office," she said, "there have been more than half a dozen people who have found property, but will not make their decision until after Nov. 7 because if the referendum doesn't pass, they won't come to Park Rapids."

Dennis told about a family who spent a weekend here and learned about the levy referendum and what it would mean for the school district. "Monday morning they called their agent and said they couldn't wait to make their decision and would move to Alexandria."

Another couple "found a home they love, but if the referendum doesn't pass, they will move to Fargo."

One question to consider, too, Dennis said, is "whose house didn't sell."

She said a couple she knows is waiting for their home to sell so they can build a new one. If they can't sell and don't build, the ripple extends to contractors, hardware stores, lumberyards and beyond, Dennis pointed out.

"If people start leaving and put their homes on the market, who buys them if we're not attracting new families?"

Dennis drove home her second main point about the impact of failing to pass a referendum. "If your next door neighbor decides to sell and sells $30,000 below, what does that do to the value of your house? I see drastic consequences for the entire area if that starts happening," said Dennis.

Dennis, who also has school-age children, said she is worried not just from the standpoint of the real estate business, but the impact on the entire community.

"Where will we see the ripple effect stop? When we vote, 'yes,'" she said.

'Economic ecosystem'

"The economic ecosystem speaks a clear message to us," said Katie Magozzi, executive director of the Park Rapids Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

"We have nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. This is a watershed moment," she added, introducing Mark Hewitt, CEO of Northwoods Bank.

"We are living in a blessed community," Hewitt said. When he served as president of the Minnesota Bankers Association he traveled statewide. "Every time I came home, I said Park Rapids is a great place."

Hewitt recalled when Martin Carter talked him into trying out for speech when he was a high school student and he didn't thank Carter until 30 years later when he had to give a speech to 600 bankers. "Speech is an opportunity I would like to see every child in Park Rapids have," he said.

"Park Rapids has a great reputation as a community that supports education. We passed a bond issue for a new school that was really needed and was important economically," he added.

Recently, Hewitt said, he was called by a writer for a banking journal who asked, "What's the most important thing that will affect the success of your business in the future?" Hewitt replied: "My ability to recruit quality employees."

When recruiting employees, Hewitt continued, they ask about churches, the education system and health care. "Not one of them has ever asked me to see a jail. We spent money on a jail. Now we need to spend money on education. That is what's important."

Hewitt said he's also been asked lately why a banker is so enthusiastically supporting a referendum.

"If our customers can grow their business, it carries on and ripples out through the economy," Hewitt said. "We have a reputation as being one heck of a great place to live and we don't want to lose that."

Finally, Hewitt tackled the comment that threatening to cut co-curriculars is a bluff. It is the question Chiodo says he is most frequently asked.

"I have been working on school issues for many years," Hewitt said. "I can't think of an administrator or school board member that's more interested in doing what's right for the community and I don't for a minute think they would ever consider using kids as a pawn.

"These are honorable, trustworthy people, trying to do the right job and a difficult job, and if they say this is the only choice we have left, they have looked behind every rock, every door and this is the last resort.

"I think our community has to realize every single person, whether they have a child in school or not, needs to think who educates the future policemen and firemen. And there is a cost and an obligation. Even if you don't have kids in school, you will be impacted by the children in the community. We need to look deep and vote the right way."

Senior adds her thoughts

Kelly Schweigart, a high school student, spoke last.

"I want you to know how much it means to me that you vote 'yes,'" she said.

Sometimes now because classes are so large, Schweigart said she misses hearing the announcements or the Pledge of Allegiance.

She said she can't imagine what classes will be like if they become even larger.

Schweigart also told the audience "sports are my life." She watched her best friend quit sports in 8th grade and throw her life away. "Please believe me when I say sports and extracurriculars keep us out of trouble."

Students also need to show they've done more than just go to classes when filling out their college applications, she said.

Most of all, she said, she is concerned about her younger sisters' education. She hopes to see one be in National Honor Society and in sports and wonders if the other, who struggles a bit more, is getting the attention in class she needs so she will be able to keep her grades where they need to be to be in sports.

"I want her to feel that indescribably rush you get when you're on the field or that trophy is in your hand," Schweigart said. "I want all kids who play in sports to feel that and for all kids to get the education they deserve.

"Support the future of these kids, this school and this community," she said.

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