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Bemidji School Board to seek voter approval in 2012 to renew operating levy

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A weak economy is the main reason the bond issue did not pass, a majority of Bemidji School District administrators answered in a recent survey.

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The school district's Board of Education met Wednesday to discuss why more than 67 percent of voters turned down a $13 million bond package to build a new elementary school, and also to decide on what steps to take next.

Superintendent James Hess sent an informal survey to the six school board members and 18 school district administrators last month. The survey offered questions on why the vote failed, what contributed to the failed bond and what short-term and long-term options should be looked at in the future.

Of the 18 administrators who submitted survey answers, a majority of them blamed a weak economy and having space still available at Bemidji High School as the main reasons the vote failed.

More administrators also felt the top contributing factors to the failed bond were people being uncertain about the Homestead Market Value Exclusion, a lack of school district staff support and an increase in county, city or township taxes.

"Bemidji has always been supportive of its kids and I think it will be again," Hess said. "This was just not the right time to ask this particular question."

Overwhelmingly most of the participating administrators preferred reconfiguring grade levels (assigning schools to serve grades K-4, 5-7 and 8-12) as a solution to finding more classroom space. Nearly all of the administrators who took the survey also felt the school board should not conduct a post-election study to determine voter concerns and opinions.

Because only four school board members submitted their survey answers on time, answers varied across the board. The board was split on whether a formal survey should be done to study the election results.

The school board came to a consensus that it would not seek another bond election in 2012 or 2013. Instead, the school board will attempt to ask voters in 2012 to renew its current $501-per-pupil operating levy.

This taxpayer money has been used by the school district to fund all-day, every-day kindergarten, purchase new buses and fund resources to keep class sizes down.

While the current operating levy does not expire until 2013, an off-election year, Chris Leinen, the district's business manager, said asking voters during a general election year could yield a higher voter turnout and would allow the school board to extend its operating levy to an even number of years, such as six, eight or ten years. Also, if the vote fails in 2012, the board could ask again in 2013.

Board members made a list of five options that still remain on the table. These are reconfiguring grade levels, using portable classrooms, reopening Deer Lake Elementary School, building additions onto schools with excess students or building a second early learning center.

Depending on the size of a new addition to a school building, this option could require a bond election to take place. Also, building an early learning center would also likely require a vote.

Northern Elementary School teacher Brandon Bjerknes, who was also involved in the "Bemidji Proud" campaign, suggested some of the "yes" votes could have been taken away due to the school district reopening Paul Bunyan Elementary school as a short-term solution.

"If the decision is to build a new school at some point, we have to feel pain," he said. "I think music and art would need to be on a cart and classrooms need to be full. It's not a fun working environment, but it would sure make everyone feel the problem."

Board Chairman Bill Faver responded, "As a parent sometimes I let my kids suffer natural consequences, but as a board member, it's a harder, ethical dilemma to let people experience pain. I really think we need to be fearless in what we think is the right thing ethically and what is in the best interest of the kids."

Board Member Melissa Bahr added, "I think if the kids were to vote and not the parents, the bond would have passed. We can't punish the kids for what the parents did."

Hess also urged the school board to reach out to the public more in its next campaign to ask the public to renew its operating referendum.

awilliams@bemidjipioneer.com

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