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Annual Report | Education: Learning institutions fight to keep up amid aid cuts

Teacher Liana Schaefer demonstrates how to play a reading game to her class as part of the 21st Century Summer Learning Community, Bemidji Area Schools' summer school program. Monte Draper|Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI - State aid cuts continue to face Bemidji area institutions of learning, forcing them to make changes in their staffs and look to other sources for funding.

Nearly 2,300 people are employed in the education industry, a number which has dropped by about 100 since 2006, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

The scarcity of state aid has stretched Independent School District 31, Superintendent James Hess said.

"We have a scarcity of resources which has become acute in the last few years," Hess said. "We're being asked to do more with less."

Hess said the school district is trying to receive funding from various other sources.

"We're going to continue to be more resourceful and stretch as far as we can," Hess said. "We'll look for ways to supplement that funding with grants, federal dollars and other resources."

As for higher education, Bemidji State University has seen a 40 percent decrease in state aid in the last 12 years, President Richard Hanson said.

"Two years ago, we had a big budget cut," Hanson said. "We spent all of last year kind of recalibrating ourselves and hiring the talent we needed. Now we're in good shape financially. It's been difficult, but we're ready to move forward."

A decrease in state aid is a trend being seen across the state of Minnesota, not just in Bemidji. Locally, Hess said IDS 31's biggest challenge is overcoming the impact of poverty on the district's students.

"We're one of the most impoverished areas in Minnesota so our students don't have the same kinds of experiences as students from more affluent counties, so it's up to the teachers to help diminish those," Hess said. "We have a number of programs that start at an early age to work with families. We believe the earlier we start, the more likely the students will be successful and overcome poverty."

As far as trends facing higher education, Hanson said students have become consumers.

"They're very aware," Hanson said. "They know what they want, and they want it now. There have been increased cries for accountability on the part of higher education and for help with loans."

Another trend BSU has followed is online education, Scott Faust, director of communications and marketing, said.

"With the advent and growth of online education, I think we've been leaders in that," Faust said. "It enables a whole other level of students to achieve their goals."

As the K-12 district works to keep up with the changing education landscape, Hess said the teachers strive to provide students with a solid education.

"Our students are competitive statewide, nationally and internationally," Hess said. "They're all college- and career-ready upon graduation. We have a lot to be proud of."

The career readiness continues once they arrive at a university like BSU, Faust said.

"About 85 percent of BSU students find work in their degree-related fields or go onto earn advanced degrees," Faust said. "They're choosing highly relevant degrees, and I think there's the expectation that that value be there."