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Park Rapids faces elimination of school activities

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Hundreds of football fans pack the Vern Weekly Field stadium for the Park Rapids Panthers' home opener against the Pequot Lakes Patriots. If the school district fails to pass a funding referendum this fall, football, and all other sports and activities, will be eliminated.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Football is big in Park Rapids. On a crisp Friday evening, the bleachers are packed for the Panther's home opener. 

Most in the crowd are well aware that next year, there may not be any high school football. No sports at all. No high school plays. No band or choir concerts. No speech or debate competitions. Retired teacher Walt Harrison says people in the community are starting to worry. 

Walt Harrison
Retired teacher Walt Harrison says people in the community are beginning to realize that a lot is at stake with the referendum vote.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"I think the community is starting to realize that, you know, this is very serious," said Harrison. "And there's just no other places to cut, really."

Voters in the Park Rapids District have been asked four times in recent years to pass a school funding referendum. Each time the measure was defeated.

Now, the stakes are high, especially for students. High school senior Tara Eberhart says she believes if the referendum fails, lots of kids will leave. Eberhart says student athletes would take advantage of open enrollment and move to other school districts.

"I know if they're in football, the football team would probably go," said Eberhart. "Since I'm in swimming, I'd probably go to a different school. I know a lot of people are talking about schools already, if they're going to go or not, if it passes or not passes."

Financial problems in the Park Rapids School District began with an accounting error discovered back in 2000. Administrators mistakenly double counted some state funding. They spent money they didn't have. That, combined with declining enrollment, plunged the district deep in the hole. It's been digging out ever since.

Stephanie Carlson
Stephanie Carlson has children attending school in the Park Rapids District. She and other parents are working to rally support for the referendum.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

The district has already cut four sports. Home economics and some other class offerings are gone. Supply budgets have been slashed. Forty-three teachers have lost their jobs over the past five years. Stephanie Carlson has kids in the district. She's part of a group of parents trying to rally community support for the referendum.

"I think that now it has come to the point, even though all of these cuts have been horrible, that we are down to the bear minimum, past that probably, and there's no creativity left," Carlson said. "There's nothing else to cut, but these huge things that we're talking about."

Previous cuts sent class sizes in Park Rapids soaring. If the referendum fails, eight more teachers would lose their jobs.

One high school social studies class is packed with nearly 35 students. School officials say if the referendum is defeated, classes like this would grow to more than 40 kids. Teacher Sandy Aldrich says crowded classrooms are already hurting students.

Already overcrowded classrooms in Park Rapids schools would get worse if voters turn down the school referendum.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"There's so many that need individual attention," Aldrich said. "And you just can't get to them, and so you feel like you've left them behind. Or if you pay attention to them, then the kids who are excellent get kind of bored, so you're trying to switch gears all the time."

The editorial page of the local newspaper has had lots of letters supporting the $600 per pupil levy referendum. But voices against the measure have been mostly silent. Several opponents declined to be interviewed for this story. Both were seniors on fixed incomes who said they couldn't afford more taxes.

The owner of a $100,000 home would pay an additional $115 a year in taxes if the measure is approved.

School officials say they think the biggest reason referendums have failed in the past is because voters were angry over the accounting error that caused the financial crisis.

Glenn Chiodo
Park Rapids Superintendent Glenn Chiodo says he thinks there'd be a mass exodus of students if the district is forced to eliminate sports and other activities. Some students are already talking about their open enrollment options.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Superintendent Glenn Chiodo was hired by the district after that error was made. He's hoping voters will get behind this year's measure for the sake of the students and the community. Chiodo says his biggest worry is that if the referendum fails, larger class sizes and the elimination of student activities will cause a mass exodus of students to other districts.

"It becomes a snowball effect," said Chiodo. "Obviously you lose students you lose revenue and then you make more cuts. I can't even predict, I can't even project what that would look like, because it's beyond my comprehension of how it would be."

If the referendum passes in Park Rapids, it would bring in close to a million additional dollars a year for five years. Administrators say that would be enough to keep activities and begin hiring back teachers.