Aitkin School

The Aitkin School Board decided Sept. 8 to hire Widseth, Smith and Nolting to help the district with its communication needs for its upcoming capital projects levy (CPL).

The district is seeking a $500,000 CPL for 10 years so it can address needed technology and transportation upgrades – $450,000 each year for the purchase, replacement, support and maintenance of technology, technology systems and software, with $50,000 put aside each year so that a new bus can be purchased every other year, and  allow for maintenance of other school vehicles.

WSN issued its first release – a letter signed by Aitkin Superintendent Dan Stifter – Friday afternoon. It highlighted the district’s stance on why the capital projects levy is needed and what it will be used for, the importance of having one-to-one technology for all students, and the reality that the district will have to look at cuts to services and programs if it cannot get the vote for the capital projects levy.

If the levy passes, the tax increase will vary from approximately $8 a year for a $50,000 residential homestead to $135 for a $500,000 home.

Commercial and industrial taxes would vary from $20-$250 a year, based on the same values above. For seasonal recreational residential owners, the cost would range from $13 to $135, again for the same base values.

Aitkin’s board heard proposals from Nexus and ICS last week, but board member Joe Ryan asked for a third presentation to be made, and suggested reaching out to WSN.

Brady Bussler, the digital marketing manager, architect Mike Angland, and mechanical engineer Adam Siemers – originally from Aitkin – came to present at the Sept. 8, though Bussler did most of the talking.

Bussler, like the Nexus and ICS

representatives the week before, felt that Aitkin had a good plan to bring additional dollars into the district, spreading the levy across all stakeholders.

Bussler felt the district had to address and answer three questions, ones that he said crop up whenever a referendum or levy increase is proposed: 1. Why are general fund dollars not enough? 2. What’s at stake if the levy fails? and 3. How will this affect me personally?

“We think these are the main points you’re going to need to drive home,” Bussler explained at the meeting.

Bussler also stressed breaking the numbers down into the smallest figures possible, so residents are able to see the impact on their monthly budget. As Stifter did in the letter, the average cost for homes in the $110,000-$180,000 range will be about $2-3 a month.

“You want to use accurate and truthful information,” Bussler said, who added that the district needed to keep its information simple and consistent and use a wide variety of media to share that message.

Bussler said that creating a one to two minute video would be ideal.

“It really helps you communicate your message,” he explained. “Almost everyone has a cellphone (or) some sort of device.”

He added that WSN worked with Brainerd on its referendum, creating a video on the district’s Facebook page that was viewed 27,000 times.

Bussler and the other two representatives acknowledged that the district is facing a tight turnaround, but like the other presenters a week earlier, the timeframe is doable. The key, they said, would be strategy meetings, developing key messages and working on a calendar on when to deliver what.

After they were finished, Stifter presented the costs from each firm. Nexus wanted to charge $7,800, while ICS would charge $9,500 but with a half-cost discount if the district worked with them after the vote.

Widseth’s cost was $7,370. Ryan, who proposed the additional presentation, was the first to address that the price difference was relatively small – and also was the first to suggest going with WSN.

While the consensus of the board was to at least eliminate ICS, the rest of the board members appeared to be fine with either WSN or Nexus. Board member John Chute felt that Nexus was pitching for more than just the next two months.

“They’re looking at a bigger picture,” he said, adding that he felt the WSN presentation lacked some specifics.

Ryan, defending WSN, said that is was a local company, compared with Nexus. While Nexus is based in Wisconsin, the group has offices in Minnesota and recently helped McGregor School District with its referendum.

Board chairperson Cindi Hills said ICS obviously has the history with the district, while Nexus took the time to explain developing the relationship with the community, and felt they would be in this for the long term.

She liked Widseth’s idea of using technology to sell technology.

“We need to hone in and focus on the scope of the message for the next two months,” Hills said.

Chute made his case for Nexus, but the motion that was made – from Dennis Hasskamp – was for WSN, seconded by Ryan.

The vote was successful, with the lone dissenting vote from Chute.

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