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Aitkin School District referendum fails

Residents of the Aitkin School District recently voted down a referendum question that would have allowed the district to build a new school while renovating an existing one.

Residents of the Aitkin School District recently voted down a referendum question that would have allowed the district to build a new school while renovating an existing one.

During the Aug. 9 primary election, voters in the district considered a referendum question for the acquisition of land for and construction of a new school for grades 5-12; the relocation of athletic fields to the new school site; renovations, remodeling and additions to Rippleside Elementary; and the demolition or sale of the existing high school facility. The school would have issued $68.5 million in bonds to fund the project.

Voters turned down the question by a 3-to-1 margin, with 75 percent voting against and 25 percent voting for. Of the 4,048 voters, 1,023 voted "yes" while 3,025 voted "no."

In January 2015, the district asked the voters to approve a $24 million remodel referendum which included an additional $3 million athletic facilities question. The remodel referendum failed by a 66-vote margin, while the athletic facility question failed by a larger margin.

After that first referendum failed, the district was told the community wanted the chance to vote on a referendum for a new building, Superintendent Bernie Novak said. The district held 17 listening sessions and put together a task force of about 30 community members to come up with a new plan and question, he said. The task force looked at a couple options and offered the $68.5 million question to the school board, which said it would support the question.

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After the plan was developed, the district held two more listening sessions and mailed out brochures with information on the plan, Novak said, so voters could make an informed, educated decision.

Since the referendum failed, the district will now go back to the drawing board, Novak said, and the school board will meet to discuss the next steps. There's not a lot of options, he said, but the district can't just sit on its hands and do nothing. Still, he isn't sure how the board will proceed.

"I don't have a crystal ball," Novak said.

Novak said he could "absolutely" sense the community opposition to the plan before the vote.

"I think there was opposition before the board even finished designing the plan," Novak said.

Some of the board members wanted to see a different version of the remodel plan that failed in January 2015, Novak said, and thought the $68.5 million plan was excessive. But the board promised to listen to what the task force developed, he said, and take the recommended plan to the community.

A telephone survey conducted before the January 2015 referendum showed support for a $24 million referendum, Novak said. Because that referendum failed by a slim margin, he said, it showed the number was correct while the plan needed reworking. He hoped the task force would look at a different plan for the $24 million figure, instead of coming up with a larger number.

"That's what the task force needed to look at and I don't think they really did," Novak said.

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The task force thought it could put together a plan for a new school building the community would support, Novak said, and was doing what it thought was right. Despite the result, he said the district needs to do something about its aging buildings.

"They are getting old for today's educational needs," Novak said. "Education has changed since these buildings were built."

Related Topics: ELECTION 2016
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