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$9 mil on the ballot this fall: Budget cuts imminent for Aitkin Schools if capital levy fails

A levy question on the ballot on Nov. 2 will ask voters to approve funds for district maintenance needs.

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Aitkin Superintendent Dan Stifter talks about the district's upcoming capital levy project, which will go to a vote Nov. 2, 2021. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

AITKIN — Unless a $9 million capital levy passes this November, the Aitkin School District is looking at further budget cuts.

Coming on the heels of a levy project that failed by 147 votes last year, district administrators are trying to be more effective in getting information out to voters.

“We’re able to get out in the community this year. Last year with COVID we weren’t able to,” Aitkin Superintendent Dan Stifter said during an interview Friday, Aug. 13. “We tried to do a Zoom-type event, and people just didn’t check into that. And we tried to do word of mouth, and it didn’t get out, so we’re working with a strategist to help put information together, to make sure we’re getting a clear message out.”

And the school district’s message is that it faces a significant budget deficit and growing needs.

The district already made more than $1 million in budget cuts over the last four years, including eliminating more than 15 staff positions like elementary teachers, paraprofessionals, speech teachers, arts and music teachers, science teachers, physical education teachers, bus drivers, custodians, an assistant principal and other administrative roles. But even with those cuts, the district still faces a projected $808,000 deficit for the 2022-23 school year. And without the extra money the levy project would bring in, deeper cuts will have to be made, likely including more teaching positions.

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RELATED: Budget cuts likely after failed Aitkin school levy
“This isn’t something that just happened overnight,” Stifter said. “Our district’s been in this situation where, for a number of years previous boards and administration have been able to keep the reductions out of the classrooms with limited impact on students. … Now when we’re making these reductions they’re having more of an impact on students in our classes.”

Stifter said he is not yet sure what kind of cuts would be made if the levy fails.

The plan

The capital levy asks voters to approve $900,000 a year over the next 10 years to help cover the budget deficit and perform required maintenance updates to the two school buildings.

Those updates include:

  • Upgrading the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems to improve air quality and energy efficiency.

  • Replacing technology and infrastructure, such as servers and computers.

  • Improving school security.

  • Modernizing the career and technical education wing at Aitkin High School.

  • Updating the building roofs, which are more than 30 years old and past their useful lives.

  • Upgrading old plumbing and electrical systems.

  • Replacing aging school buses.

  • Rebuilding the deteriorating tennis courts and inadequate lighting.

  • Repairing the auditorium and installing new equipment, including better seating.

“It’s not like I can say if this passes we’re going to get a new science wing and a new gym,” Stifter said. “… We need this just to kind of maintain and update what we have. We’re not going to ask for anything new.”
The decision to do a capital levy instead of an operating referendum, Stifter said, was made in order to keep costs lower for homeowners. With a capital levy, the funding is spread out across all properties in the district — residential, commercial, seasonal, etc. An operating referendum, however, is only paid for by residential homeowners.

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Aitkin High School, Aug. 13, 2021. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

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Tax impact

The median residential property value in Aitkin County is about $180,000. If the levy passes, those homeowners would see their property taxes increase about $6 a month, or $72 a year. For a median home in the city of Aitkin, which is valued at about $111,600, the tax impact would be about $3 a month, or $36 a year.

Further tax impacts, if the levy passes, are as follows for the next 10 years:

  • $100,000 home — about $33 a year.

  • $200,000 home — about $83 a year.

  • $400,000 home — about $182 a year.

  • $100,000 commercial — about $69 a year.

  • $250,000 commercial — about $194 a year.

  • $500,000 commercial — about $423 a year.

  • $100,000 seasonal residential — about $34 a year.

  • $200,000 seasonal residential — about $91 a year.

  • $500,000 seasonal residential — about $229 a year.


"Do everything you can to get as educated as you can regarding our needs and what we’re asking for and the impact it’s going to have on our schools and, in the long run, on our community. "

— Aitkin Superintendent Dan Stifter


Property owners can visit ehlers-inc.com/microsite/aitkin2021 to determine the exact tax impact for their properties.

According to financial advisory firm Ehlers, Aitkin Public Schools has the lowest property taxes of school districts in the surrounding area. Current annual property taxes for a $180,000 home in the Aitkin district is about $264, compared to $296 in McGregor for a home of the same value, $365 in Crosby-Ironton, $385 in Pequot Lakes, $597 in Pillager, $688 in Brainerd, $692 in Hill City and $804 in Pierz. The state average for a $180,000 home is about $725.

The additional $72 a year from the levy would put Aitkin above McGregor, while it would remain below the others.

RELATED: Aitkin capital levy seeks funds for technology, transportation

Be informed

“Do everything you can to get as educated as you can regarding our needs and what we’re asking for and the impact it’s going to have on our schools and, in the long run, on our community,” Stifter said as a word of advice to voters. “I think if people get informed and they have the information, they’ll make a good decision.”

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More information on the levy, including a list of frequently asked questions, is available at allfor1aitkin.org . Those with questions can also contact Stifter at dstifter@isd1.org or 218-927-7100.

Voting information

Early voting begins Sept. 17. Those who want an absentee ballot must request one online at bit.ly/AbsenteeBallot21 , via email at auditor@co.aitkin.mn.us or by calling 218-927-7354.

Once an absentee ballot is received, the voter must return it by 3 p.m. on Election Day through the mail or in-person to the auditor’s office, 307 Second St. NW, Room 121. Absentee ballots mailed in must be postmarked on or before Election Day and received by the auditor’s office within seven days to be counted.

Early in-person voting can be done from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sept. 17-Nov. 1 at the Aitkin County Courthouse, 209 Second St. NW. In addition, early in-person voting can also be done from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Oct. 31 at the Aitkin County Government Center, 307 Second St. NW.

Election Day is Nov. 2, and polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Those who live in Glen, Kimberly, Lakeside, Lee, Malmo or Wealthwood townships will vote at Glen/Kimberly Town Hall, 32631 Dam Lake St., Aitkin.

Those in Fleming, Libby (west), Logan, Verdon, Waukenabo or Workman townships will vote at Palisade Town Hall, 48052 Nature Ave., Palisade.

Those who live in Aitkin, Farm Island, Hazelton, Morrison, Nordland or Spencer townships in Aitkin County, along with those in Dean Lake, Deerwood, Rabbit Lake and Ross Lake Townships in Crow Wing County, will vote at Journey North Community Church, 810 Second St. NW, Aitkin.

Voters can register ahead of time at bit.ly/2UlE1d2 or at the polling place on Election Day.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .

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Aitkin High School, Aug. 13, 2021. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Aitkin school
Aitkin High School, Aug. 13, 2021. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Aitkin school
Aitkin High School, Aug. 13, 2021. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Related Topics: EDUCATION
Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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