Karen Bird doesn't live in the Brainerd School District, but her daughter is a sophomore at Brainerd High School.

And as Bird waited in the bleachers at BHS to watch her daughter, Kirstie Billman, compete in a BHS swim meet against the St. Cloud Tech Tigers last week, she talked about how important swimming is to her daughter and the positive friendships she's developed while participating in the sport.

"It's amazing that a freshman or sophomore will make friends with a senior," said Bird. "Sports keep kids out of trouble."

Anthony Kinney, a parent of a Riverside Elementary School student, discussed the operating levy referendum outside the school Tuesday as he held his 4-year-old son, Shawn. Kinney and his wife, Tanya, have a 6-year-old daughter, Lauren, who attends school at Riverside. Kinney said he feels the district is unfairly pressuring parents into voting for the referendum by telling parents the district is taking away their school of choice option if the levy fails. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls

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For some Brainerd parents, the upcoming operating levy referendum question is an easy one. They plan to vote yes because they see the positive impact that extracurricular activities and sports play in their children's lives.

But parents are taxpayers and business owners, too.

While Bird cannot vote in the Nov. 6 election, her daughter already has begged her to vote yes for her team.

"I would vote yes on it, not that I'd want to pay for it on my taxes," said Bird, who lives in the Pequot Lakes School District. "But it's not like taxes don't go up anyhow."

Mykel Barthel

Two parents at the same swim meet, who declined to give their names since they own a business, said they will reluctantly vote yes on the levy vote but they don't like that the district has given voters an all-or-nothing option - either vote yes or two elementary schools would be closed, several sports and extracurricular activities will be eliminated, 65-75 teaching positions would be cut and class sizes will increase.

"The school district has only given us options A and C," said the mother, who has two teenage daughters active in sports and music in the district. "Where is B? What are the alternatives? If the school district had to run the school district like a business, there would be an option B. We are probably going to vote yes for it but we want to see accountability so we don't have cutting again. If we have to budget our household incomes so should the school district. There's definitely talk in the community and frustration in the community that the school district isn't being accountable in their spending."

"We've got more schools in Brainerd than I've seen in my life," added parent and local business owner Mykel Barthel, who was at the swim meet watching his daughter compete. "There's always fat to be trimmed."

Stacy Swenson

Vicki and Dave Kaul of Baxter excitedly cheered for their daughter and BHS senior, Christa Kaul, as she competed at the same swim meet. Their daughter has been swimming competitively since she was 9.

"Swimming is her life," Vicki said of her daughter. "It's hard for her to think about all this falling apart."

Vicki Kaul works as an educational assistant at Whittier Elementary School, a north Brainerd school that is one of four elementary schools being considered for closure if the levy fails. She said she's already noticed problems with the growing class sizes and worries what will happen if class sizes are forced to get even larger if the levy fails.

Tanya Kinney

"Classrooms are going to be stuffed so full kids aren't going to be able to pay attention," said Kaul. "They have trouble now."

"People are talking about it," added her husband, David. "Most people I talk to seem to be very well informed but are very concerned there's a question of whether it will go through or not. We're really concerned about what would happen to this community if this doesn't pass."

One parent, who declined to give his name, said he has two daughters and a son who are active in activities in the district. He said his frustration lies with the state government and its cuts in educational funding.

"I'm concerned larger and larger chunks of funding are going to be pushed on local communities," said the parent. "Our local citizenry shouldn't have to fund basic core education for all our kids, especially when there are unfunded mandates."

Tonya Stangel

At Riverside Elementary School Tuesday, parents also shared their concerns and frustrations with the entire situation. Some parents said they've heard of others who plan to send their children to smaller nearby districts if the levy fails and class sizes increase. While others, like parents Tanya and Anthony Kinney, feel the district is unfairly pressuring parents that if they don't vote in favor of the levy vote, their children won't be allowed to attend their school of choice. They were upset about the school sending home notes in their children's backpacks about the levy and the consequences if it fails. They don't use the busing system but pick up and drop off their 6-year-old daughter, Lauren, at Riverside. Their 4-year-old son, Shawn, will be a student next year.

"We're being strong-armed by the school system," said Anthony Kinney. "If you vote no, you'll suffer."

"I do not feel it's going to pass," added his wife, Tanya.

More this week

Friday: How do first-year teachers and other staff in the Brainerd School District feel about the levy vote?

Sunday: What are Crosby-Ironton community members doing to spread the word about their levy vote?

"I'm really worried because we picked to come here," said Tonya Stangel, whose daughters, second-grader Kiehra Dieter and kindergartner Kaylie Stangel, attend Riverside. If the levy fails, her children likely would be forced to attend Lincoln Elementary, which is blocks from their home. Stangel doesn't want her daughters to have to walk to school. If the levy fails, all students who live two miles or less from their school would not be able to use bus transportation, one of the budget cuts planned.

"There's sexual predators and it's cold in the winter," said Stangel.

Stacy Swenson said if the levy vote fails and her 6-year-old daughter, Jordan, isn't allowed to attend Riverside, she will homeschool her daughter.

"She's very shy. It takes her awhile to warm up to people and I would never, never pull her out and put her in a new school," said Swenson. "To have to switch a child into a new school - that's ridiculous. I'd rather pay the property tax. Raise the property tax and be done. If it fails, parents don't truly care."

JODIE TWEED may be reached at jodie.tweed@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5858.