Thief River Falls Public Schools budget cuts come after failed referendum last November

At a meeting last week, the Thief River Falls School Board voted 5-1 to approve the $1,270,643 budget cut for the 2022-23 school year.

Thief River Falls sign.jpg
Thief River Falls sign.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. — A $1.2 million budget cut for Thief River Falls Public Schools is the consequence of a failed operating referendum that last November, says Superintendent Donita Stepan.

“We were very clear that if the referendum didn’t pass, there would be significant budget cuts coming for next school year,” said Stepan.

At a meeting last week, the Thief River Falls School Board voted 5-1 to approve the $1,270,643 budget cut for the 2022-23 school year. Board Vice Chairperson Misty Hempel voted against the budget cut, and Board Director Craig Mattson was absent from the meeting.

In November, the district asked the community to approve an operating referendum that would generate an extra $2 million per year to fund the district’s one-to-one technology program, strategic plan and better employee benefits. On Nov. 2, 72.5% of voters voted no on the referendum.

Expenses will be cut in three main areas as a result: student to staff ratio, building administration and operation maintenance.


Currently, the student to staff ratio in the district is 14:1, which Stepan says is lower than other schools. Next year, the ratio will be adjusted, with a 15:1 ratio at the elementary school, 16:1 ratio at the middle school and 17:1 ratio at the high school. This will result in around 10 staff being cut across the district, saving it $750,000.

Cutting a building administrator will save another $116,000, and four custodial positions, which are currently unfilled, will be eliminated, saving $108,000. Other money saving measures will include eliminating some special education positions and reducing the athletics and activities budget.

But, the $1.2 million cut from the budget for the 2022-23 school year is only a portion of the amount the district needs.

“When we went after the referendum, we were asking for $2 million, but we now need 2.8 million because we have to fill our fund balance gap and we have to fill the deficit spending we had last year,” she said. “So we still have some money that we need to find.”

Over the next few months, the Thief River Falls School Board will be discussing whether that money will be found through more budget cuts in the 2023-24 school year or another referendum.

If the school board pursues another operating referendum, it will appear on the ballot in November. And, with the budget cuts approved by the school board for next year, the district would be asking for less money than the first referendum.

Looking back to November, Stepan said cost was the sticking point for many voters.

“It was very clear that people just can’t afford it. We already live in a very high tax area, and people were basically saying ‘I support our schools and I understand what you’re doing, but I can’t afford it,’” she said.


The district asking for less money, in combination with first year cuts, may push more people to approve a referendum if it was on the ballot again in November.

“People have seen that budget cuts that have to take place in year one, and you can imagine they’ll only be worse in year two, so people have to decide what matters to them or not,” said Stepan. “Either way, we’ve got to find that money.”

Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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