Aitkin School Board Graphic

Amidst questions of how much the district should have paid its winter-season coaches and whether to add coaches this spring, a bigger question loomed April 12 at the Aitkin School Board work session.

“When’s the board ready to move forward?” was the question Aitkin Superintendent Dan Stifter asked at the meeting, meaning the second attempt at the capital projects levy the district hopes to pass.

The answer turned into a looping discussion of about an hour, as the board revisited the issues that led to last fall’s levy failing, what amount the district actually needed – and if there was a strategic plan moving forward.

“If you’re telling me it’s just to keep the lights on, I think that’s shortsighted,” said board member Joe Ryan. “We have to decide on a course of action, or this will be futile.”

The discussion on the CPL began after the board had a lengthy debate on the payment of winter coaches. According to members of the board, winter coaches were not properly informed about the pro-rated coaches’ salary – a change put into place last summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the possibility of shortened seasons.

Fall coaches were paid the full rate, but because the winter sports did not start until after the first of the year, the pro-rated salary went into effect for the winter sports.

The board decided that the letter that went out to coaches wasn’t clear enough, and it would vote on whether to pay the full amount to coaches at the April 19 meeting– an additional $12,000.

A short conversation about the need for additional junior high assistant coaches due to high numbers followed, with board member Dawn Houser pointing out that adding coaches after making a staff teacher cut, “Optically, it doesn’t look right.”

That led into the discussion about the CPL. The project planning company ICS is working with the district to evaluate the property it purchased five years ago – a purchase that many in the community have identified as a sticking point in passing a levy for additional funding.

But with that program literally stuck in the mud – due to the heavy rains and spring flooding – the board discussed how and when the CPL should go on the ballot.

Stifter went back to the latest date the board had tentatively agreed upon, which is the November election. That started a “which comes first” debate by board members.

Some voiced the opinion the work by ICS needed to be completed first, so that the district could decide how to offload the property.

“You can’t take the fourth step until you take the first step,” said board president Dennis Hasskamp, adding once ICS finished its work, the district could accurately set the amount needed for the CPL and begin the process of educating the public.

The debate then went into how much the district needed to ask for in the levy – the initial $500,000 a year for 10 years, or perhaps more, depending on what the board was hoping to accomplish with the levy.

The board then circled back to the issue of educating the voting public.

Ryan and Houser agreed that the district needs to make the public aware of its needs in order to have a successful CPL vote the second time around.

“If we’re going to engage in a major campaign ... we need to be in the community no later than May 1,” Houser said. “We are going to have to justify to the community what it is we’re wanting.

“The community does not trust us,” she added. “We have to spend some time building the trust.”

Hasskamp asked Houser how she knew the community had trust issues with the board, to which she replied she is out in the community every day due to her job as the pastor at Aitkin United Methodist Church. Hasskamp countered that he is in the community every day as well.

No decisions were made, and the board decided it needed another work session for discussion.

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