CLOQUET — The seven members of the Cloquet Madrigals bravely sang of peace and good will toward men at the start of Monday evening’s School Board meeting.
But it was ill will that prevailed after that point.
“It’s your reputation that’s on the line, and you should be quaking,” school district resident Brian Lokken told the board during a truth in taxation hearing on a proposed 34.68 percent overall tax levy increase. “I’m feeling kind of cheated. This is the perception: You’ve slipped one past us.”
Lokken was among about 30 residents who attended the meeting in the long, narrow board room.
The board approved the levy with only board Chairman Gary “Hawk” Huard voting no. He didn’t explain his vote.
But before the vote, several of those in attendance voiced anger over a $3 million mistake in the way the tax impact was calculated when voters approved $49 million in construction of a new middle school in February.
Candace Nelis, the district’s business manager, explained that financial adviser Springsted Inc. misinterpreted state tax law when helping the district prepare for the referendum. The result is the district will be short a half-million dollars per year that it expected in state aid equalization until 2022, she said.
Springsted President Kathy Aho acknowledged the mistake during a special board meeting last Thursday.
The upshot is an extra $74 per year for the owner of a home valued at $150,000, according to information supplied by the district.
The mistake didn’t sit well with residents at Monday’s meeting, several of whom argued that the referendum wouldn’t have passed if the cost had been presented accurately. Board member Ted Lammi said he agreed with them.
Dave Johnson, who owns a home, business concerns and rental properties in Cloquet, said the increase will be hard on renters.
“I can absorb this, but my tenants can’t, and they pay the taxes on the rental property,” he said after the tax hearing. “And I can only ask them for so much and then they’ll move.”
District resident James W. Mallery II, who called the board’s attention at its Nov. 23 meeting to his higher-than-expected tax statement, asked if legal action was being considered against Springsted.
Superintendent Ken Scarbrough said he had consulted with legal advisers but couldn’t yet offer an answer.
Lammi said the district should press Springsted to fix the problem first, before resorting to legal action.
“We need to go to Springsted and we need to tell them: You guys messed up; you need to make it right,” Lammi said. “To start with, they’re going to have to refund all the fees, and all the commissions, and then they’re going to have to come up with that 3 million dollars. … If I were the governing board or the CEO of Springsted, I’d jump at the chance to spend 3 million dollars to protect my reputation.”
But residents seemed as angry at the board as at the company, a fact that board member Duane Buytaert seemed to take personally.
“What I hear from the community is words like slighted, cheated,” said Buytaert, a 10-year board member. “It’s hard to disagree with that.”
But the board had acted in good faith and was doing thankless work for the community that many would be unwilling to take on, he said.
“If somebody thinks they can do a better job — run,” he said.
Scarbrough acknowledged that it wasn’t a “good situation,” but reminded people to think of the end result.
“When we get done with this, we are going to have a wonderful facility for our kids,” he said. “It’s going to be wonderful for the education of our students.”
Pine Journal Editor Jana Peterson contributed to this report.