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Fergus voters to decide on school plan

Voters in the Fergus Falls (Minn.) School District head to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to raise their taxes to improve school facilities. Because of the age of the district's facilities, "we're draining our general fund budget" to keep up...

Voters in the Fergus Falls (Minn.) School District head to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to raise their taxes to improve school facilities.

Because of the age of the district's facilities, "we're draining our general fund budget" to keep up with maintenance, said Superintendent Jerry Ness.

That's on top of an already depleted budget. The school board to cut $1.8 million this spring.

"We're deficit spending right now, so we're in a financial crisis," Ness said.

The school district uses $650,000 from the general fund every year for maintenance costs, Ness said.

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"When we're doing that, we're taking money away from the kids; we're taking money away from learning," said Lynne Olson, a member of the Vote Yes committee and the task force that developed the facilities plan.

The $32.5 million plan includes an addition at Cleveland Elementary School to accommodate grades three through five.

Major remodeling of the middle school and an addition will make way for classrooms, a music room, gym and office area.

That building will house a middle school for grades 6-8 on the lower level and a high school for grades 9-12 on the upper level.

The high school will be remodeled into office space. Some of it will be used for vocational and gym classes.

"This needs to pass so that our kids have a chance to have a future in good school buildings," Olson said.

The high school was built in 1951 and the middle school was built in 1969. Ness said neither has had any major updates.

Voters defeated two prior referendums, one in 2001 and the other in 2005. Olson thinks this plan has "a much better shot" of passing.

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"We took into account the arguments the community members had: it was too expensive, they didn't see the blueprints ahead of time so they didn't know what it was going to look like, their tax burden was going to be too much," she said.

Still, some residents wrote in letters to the editor of the Fergus Falls Daily Journal that this referendum is too expensive or they don't like the plan. Opponents who were contacted did not offer comments for this story.

"From what I see, we are giving the school a short-term loan in order to stay afloat," Peter Haugen of Fergus Falls wrote in a letter to the editor.

The plan will cost the owner of a $100,000 home $166 a year for the next 20 years.

"I'm really scared if it doesn't pass," Olson said. "We're still going to be putting money into maintenance issues, and we're still not going to be putting money into kids and learning."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526

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