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Dassel-Cokato School Board brainstorms plans for ‘bigger picture’ referendum
May 8, 2017

Nan Royce
Staff Writer

DASSEL, COKATO, MN – The Dassel-Cokato School Board met in special session last Monday, to discuss next steps following the defeat of a career and technical education referendum April 18.

The $6,710,000 referendum would have provided funding for the district to add a building to house the Alternative Learning Center, and a state-of-the-art agricultural education area.

Funding would also have been used for remodeling of the current metals, welding, and wood shops including up- to-date HVAC systems, electrical systems, and equipment; remodeling of the family consumer science area; and remodeling of the high school media area.

The referendum failed by 14 votes, with a final tally of 725 votes in favor, and 739 opposed.

Board Chair Rebecca Clemen suggested the board start the special session by brainstorming how to proceed. “Let’s put anything and everything on the table,” she said.

Why did it fail?

Board members created a list of reasons they thought the referendum failed. These reasons included:

• residents didn’t know about the referendum, or didn’t know enough about it;

• voters wanted the Dassel-Cokato Regional Ice and Sports Center (DCRISC) to be included in the referendum;

• Cokato residents were concerned about costly city projects combining with the referendum cost. (Superintendent Jeff Powers pointed out that, when looking at all the votes, the referendum had passed in Meeker County, and failed in Wright County.)

• the future of agricultural economics is too unknown at this time to add a referendum to the mix; and,

• the April 18 vote was too close to tax day.

Board Member Dave Sangren summed up the situation.

“I thought (the vote) was 50/50 the whole time,” he said. “The CTE and the hockey rink kind of crossed each other out.”

Following the rules

Powers explained the legalities of bringing a referendum back to the public. He said the same referendum cannot be brought back for 180 days.

Any proposed referendum that varies from the April 18 option by 5 percent or more could be brought back sooner, potentially in August.

Powers also noted that any proposed referendum totaling over $2 million must go through a review and comment process for approval by the Minnesota Department of Education.

Powers told the board that referendum ballot questions could be grouped, and a levy and a referendum could run together, and be contingent upon one another.

Bigger picture thinking

The board members, in agreement that they wanted to move forward with the CTE project, discussed how to put together a spending package that would appeal to more residents of the Dassel-Cokato district.

Discussion centered around combining the CTE, the DCRISC, and facility upgrades in the board’s next appeal to voters.

Board members concluded advance research, teamwork, in-depth planning, and community involvement were each an imperative piece of the puzzle.

After much discussion, board members suggested the following referendum-planning actions:

• Intentional discussions with DCRISC staffers to assess the time frame for turning the facility over to the school district, and about assuming its operating costs.

• Formation of a sub-committee of board members Irene Bender and Chuck Nelson to research the current state of all district facilities and determine if a professional facilities study is necessary.

• Keep a close eye on the overall budget, to help assess potential levy amounts. The district has been deficit spending the last several years, and that trend is expected to continue. “We need to talk about how an operating levy will be a part of this,” Clemen said.

Critical timing

Board members discussed when to bring the district’s funding proposal back to the voters. They eventually narrowed down their focus to two options: the fall of 2017, or the fall of 2018.

While most board members wanted proposed spending plans back in front of voters as soon as possible, the general consensus was that they should take time, do their due diligence in fully researching all district needs, and take a slower pace to fully explain and discuss the proposal with voters.

Having difficulty settling on a timing option, Clemen called for a roll call vote to pin down the timing of the next vote. Aho voted for the fall of 2017, while Bender, Clemen, Nelson, Sangren and Shane Colberg chose the fall of 2018.

“I don’t feel the fall of 2017 is the right fit,” Nelson commented. “I think we need to take a step back and figure out what we want. We shouldn’t ramrod this through.”

Colberg concurred. “As much as I hate the thought of bogging this down for a year and a half,” he said, “we have to sound educated and informed next time.”

Powers noted he would bring district goals to the board in June, which would help facilitate some planning choices.

He stated he would also be presenting a budget that had gone through a “belt-tightening process,” which could potentially make the proposed referendum a little less financially painful.

Board members prepared to adjourn with a clearer path forward. “We need to bring it all together,” Aho said. “Everybody needs to feel they’re a part of this.”

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