Aitkin School

It’s not the first time Aitkin Independent School District #1 has tried for additional dollars from taxpayers, but school district officials are seeking help to make this third try successful.

The Aitkin School Board, in a special work session Aug. 31, heard presentations from both Nexus Solutions and ICS /Rapp Strategies to help present information about the district’s upcoming capital projects levy in the Nov. 3 election.

A third presentation, from Widseth, Smith and Nolting, was scheduled for Sept. 8, at 7 p.m. at the high school media room.

Nexus recently helped the McGregor School District to a successful referendum that will address a variety of security and renovation issues.

ICS, meanwhile, has worked with Aitkin in the past. The district has tried to pass two referenda in the last five years, both of which have failed.

This time, Aitkin is working the capital project levy, hoping to use that levy to cover technology and bus costs and use the existing dollars to keep even with the budget.

Both the Nexus and ICS/Rapp representatives that came before the board Aug. 31 felt that the district had a good plan that it could sell to district residents.

“It’s not just grasping for money,” said Rob Brown of Nexus. “It’s, ‘here’s the plan, and why we’re asking for money.’”

Added Jeff Schiltz of ICS, “I think you have a really smart plan. The key is getting the community to understand.”

Both also acknowledged the time constraint on Aitkin. Absentee balloting begins in the state of Minnesota Sept. 18, with mail-in ballots going out before the end of the month.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the large number of mail-in ballots done in Aitkin County, a greater percentage of votes may be in before the Nov. 3 election date.

Brown said there wasn’t time for Nexus to conduct a third-party survey, but it could provide help in terms of educating the public about the need for the referendum and its various facets.

Brown also said that reaching out and gauging who the support was coming from would be key. He repeated the phrase “Trust is earned, not given,” both in terms of providing transparency to the community and in the board possibly hiring Nexus.

Brown did stress that the time to educate the public is now, before the referendum. If it fails, he explained, the job will just become more difficult.

ICS, represented by Schiltz and Todd Rapp with Rapp Strategies, offered a number of successful referendums in its resume. That includes in Brainerd and Grand Rapids, as well as helping Mora pass one during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Schiltz stressed that communication could only help the district.

That is where having a partner like ICS could help.

Schiltz said the company would provide everything from core messaging to a microsite on the referendum, as well as newspaper columns and letter to the editor templates. A social media plan, Power point presentations, a calendar for important tasks and trouble-shooting phone calls are included in the $9,500 cost.

After both finished their presentations, the board agreed that working with a partner would be helpful.

“I think it would be a good idea to have help with this,” said Board Chair Cindi Hills. But board members also wanted to hear at least one more presentation, and asked Superintendent Dan Stifter to set it up for the coming week.

Also discussed at the meeting was the COVID-19 plan for reopening school. Stifter explained that three teachers cannot get medical clearance to return to in-person teaching, and about 120 total students have requested the distance learning option.

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