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The first pitch

If residents had any idea how overcrowded schools like Sunnyside Elementary are, Jen Mueller says a referendum would be a much easier sell.

Mueller, a parent of two kids in the Red Wing School District, joined others Monday saying dedicated teachers are being stretched to the limit in the face of budget cutbacks.

"Times are tough," Mueller said after the a meeting school officials organized to tackle the September referendum. "But they're tough for everybody, including our schools."

Red Wing school officials took their first steps in convincing taxpayers to open their pocketbooks, drawing about 20 people -- including community and business leaders -- for the event.

Organizers focused on two goals in the first of three meetings: taking the public's temperature on a potential property tax hike to fund schools, and painting a clear picture of the district's financial outlook.

"Getting it off the ground," School Board Chairman Paul Kramp said before the meeting, "is such a huge issue."

Voters will be asked in September to renew the district's local funding mechanism. Red Wing School Board members aren't saying yet how much they intend to seek, though a failed referendum would create a $2.1 million funding hole, according to district projections.

In many communities, tax opponents clash with school supporters, forming a contentious process. But School Board member Perry Sekus said he's hoping to curtail disapproving sentiments by taking the issue to the people.

"The more we get to interact with the community, the better it is for everyone," he said.

The pitch, however, begins without a key component -- a price tag. School officials say they will wait out the legislative session to see if lawmakers adjust the state education funding formula.

Local districts are looking at a 1 percent funding hike from the state next year, though some worry the amount could shrink as legislators and Gov. Tim Pawlenty solve a nearly $1 billion budget shortfall.

For now, Kramp said that means a conservative outlook. The banking executive said he's predicting no more than the 1 percent bump lawmakers approved last year.

"I just don't think they're going to be coming in with a pot of gold," Kramp said.

Some Minnesota schools do see full allocation from the state, though Supt. Stan Slessor said what ends up in Red Wing coffers has been significantly less. Over the past several years, Red Wing has received annual increases of about .70 percent.

Red Wing will seek a referendum renewal regardless of the outcome this year at the Capitol. Under the Minnesota public school funding scheme, local districts and the state must share expenses.

The referendum amount sought in Red Wing could fluctuate in reaction to state funding adjustments. The current referendum provides $600 per pupil.

Even without a set amount, the referendum meetings will give residents a sampling of what could lie ahead, School Board member Stephen O'Keefe said. He expects district officials to outline varying per-pupil amounts -- perhaps up to $1,200 -- and how the funding would affect both taxpayers and the district.

Just how hard a sell this year's referendum will be remains unknown, Kramp said. With leading state and national economists saying the country is either experiencing or approaching a recession, Kramp warned that some taxpayers may not have an appetite for more spending.

"Referendums aren't easy to pass in good economic times," he said. "When they're looking at their tax bill, increases in utilities and groceries, they're finding less disposable income. Even if (the referendum) is $25 extra a month, that's a lot for a lot of people, and I'm not going to take that lightly."

Still, a generally supportive base for public education could help grease the skids, O'Keefe said.

"Overall, I'm hearing a lot of support for the schools," he said. "We'll see if that turns into a 'yes' vote or not."