Nearly 66% of voters in the Aitkin School District approved a $9 million capital projects levy Tuesday, Nov. 2.
The measure, which requested funds for facility maintenance needs and to cover a growing budget deficit, passed with 1,595 voting yes and 828 voting no.
“We were excited — obviously very excited that we won and a little bit surprised by the margin that it won by,” Aitkin Superintendent Dan Stifter said during a phone interview Wednesday, Nov. 3.
The approval comes a year after an unsuccessful referendum that failed by 147 votes last year.
Without the added funds from the vote, the district was facing an $800,000 budget deficit for the 2022-23 school year, creating the need to cut about eight to 12 staff members, Stifter said. The district already made more than $1 million in budget cuts over the last four years, including eliminating more than 15 staff positions — including elementary teachers, paraprofessionals, speech teachers, arts and music teachers, science teachers, physical education teachers, bus drivers, custodians, an assistant principal and other administrative roles. Classes would have likely been combined for larger class sizes and higher student-to-teacher ratios.
Updates the district will now make with the extra $9 million over the next 10 years 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.
The median residential property value in Aitkin County is about $180,000. Those homeowners will 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 will be about $3 a month, or $36 a year.
Stifter said a lot of people — staff members, school board officials, community members — got involved in the levy campaign by helping to inform voters.
“And I think in the end, that’s what made the difference,” he said. “We just had a lot of different people carrying the message of what our needs were, and I can’t thank the community and the people who got involved enough for that, and I also thank the voters who took a look at the plan and what we’re doing.”