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Gov. Mark Dayton, joined at the left by Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, and, at right, Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, uses a 4-foot-long pencil at the state Capitol to sign a 75th birthday card Wednesday for Bemidji's Paul Bunyan. Bethany Wesley | pioneer photo

Capitol setting allows local lobbying for projects, education

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ST. PAUL - Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, said he had hoped that redistricting would not pit friends against friends.

But it did just that, he said Wednesday at the state Capitol.

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The redistricting maps released Tuesday afternoon place Carlson and Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, into a newly defined district.

Both appeared Wednesday morning before 50-some Bemidjians who traveled south to St. Paul to take part in the seventh annual Bemidji Day at the Capitol. Saxhaug was presented with his own red-and-black plaid vest as he welcomed Bemidji to the Capitol and thanked participants for coming.

Both Carlson and Saxhaug confirmed their intentions to seek re-election this fall. Carlson is in his first term; Saxhaug was elected in 2002.

"Whatever happens happens," Carlson said.

Bemidjians who took part in the lobbying day gathered in small teams and met one-on-one with about three legislators to advocate for Bemidji projects and issues. Topping the bonding requests this year was $3 million for a new studio for Lakeland Public Television, which would raise an additional $1 million locally.

In a meeting with four Bemidji area residents, Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, noted the bonding request is strengthened because its chief author is Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, who serves on the Capitol Investment committee.

But the project was not included in Gov. Mark Dayton's bonding bill, which was released last month.

Norton and Rep. Tom Tillberry, DFL-Fridley, who met together with a Bemidji lobbying team, said they both hope a bonding bill will pass this session, but Tillberry is wondering why there are no proposed bonding bills on the table from the House and the Senate.

"I just don't know what the wait is," he said. "Where is it?"

But while legislators discussed other issues, mainly, the lobbying team focused with them on education issues, since both Norton and Tillberry serve on the Education Reform committee. Jim Hess, superintendent of the Bemidji School District, was, specifically, trying to show how the district is adversely affected by the transportation funding formula.

Transportation funding is allocated per student, not based on the costs actually accrued to provide transportation for students. Hess said the formula results in the Bemidji School District needing to exceed the transportation funding allocated by "well more than half a million dollars."

"Transportation shouldn't be something that should make winners and losers in schools," he said.

Brenda Cassellius, the Education Department commissioner, also heard about this issue during a meeting with 14 Bemidji residents. Chris Leinen, the district's director of business services, noted that the school district covers 825 square miles.

"In general, my No. 1 issue is around funding," Cassellius said.

She said a disparity has been created in the past decade due to underfunding of education.

"I think we need to structurally fix the funding system," she said, noting a committee has been examining how that could be done and the possible effects to specific school districts.

Cassellius said she is committed to making sure all children are reading by third grade and advancing policies that encourage and strengthen the position.

"That is such a predictor for high school completion and success," she said.

She said the state is celebrating a No Child Left Behind waiver which will replace federal mandates with more local control,

"We think this will unleash schools now to do things other than reading and math," Cassellius said.

"Really, Minnesota's doing an excellent job," she said.

But she also discussed the areas where schools need to do better, particularly in terms of funding. Early childhood education, for instance, is proven to return $16 for every $1 invested.

"We know from research and even economic research ... investment early on makes all the difference," she said.

Further, she said, students need to be taught that finishing school is a necessity, with 70 percent of all jobs requiring some form of advanced degree, whether it be a four-year degree or trade school certificate.

"The challenge for them to have a living wage in the future is just so great," she said. "We have to really get to our students and say you have to finish high school, absolutely, at a minimum."

Another problem she highlighted is that high schools have phased out hands-on trades-school classes and now there is a very real need for those skills.

"There are over 2 million jobs in America that we can't fill because students don't have the skill sets to fill those," Cassellius said.

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