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District's approval sought for Boys & Girls Club leasing gym to charter schools

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With the recent loss of a $74,000 grant, the Boys & Girls Club of the Bemidji Area is now seeking other ways to bring in new revenue.

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One idea is to lease its gymnasium to charter schools to use for physical education classes. The club's gymnasium sits empty during school days but is used by members during after-school hours.

During a work session Monday evening at the Bemidji School District offices, three representatives from the Boys & Girls Club asked the Bemidji School District's Board of Education to consider changing the wording in a 2004 school re-use agreement. Under an agreement signed by both parties in April 2004, the club cannot lease its gymnasium to "a school in competition with the school district," meaning other public schools.

Eight years ago, the Bemidji School District sold a section of the old Bemidji High School to the Boys & Girls Club for $1. According to the agreement, the district sold the land to the Club "for the benefit of children in the community."

Because the district had various concerns about the club's use of the parcel in the future, the district placed specific liens, or conditions, into the agreement. One of the liens prohibits the club from allowing a "school in competition with the district" to use the club's facilities.

The financial conditions listed in the agreement for the property are in effect for 20 years from when the agreement was signed, said Chris Leinen, the district's director of business services. The liens against the property would need to be fulfilled if the club no longer owned the property. Also, if the club were to disband and sell its assets, the district would have first right of refusal for the property.

The Boys & Girls Club of the Bemidji Area currently has 630 youth members, said Leonore Potter, the club's executive director. It serves about 120 youth on a daily basis. More than one year ago, it opened a new teen center in its facility.

The club had received funding from the Great Lakes Higher Education Guarantee Corporation in the past, but was recently notified it would not be receiving any money, a total sum of $74,000 lost. The money would have provided tutoring and career training for youth, as well as paid the salaries for three part-time employees and half of one full-time staff position at the club. It also would have covered 40 college visits for youth.

"Those funds were in part generated by a student loan program that has changed now with how the government is taking over it," Boys & Girls Club Board President Scott Turn said. "There is no chance the club will see it again."

In 2008-09, 77 percent of all funding sources for the Boys & Girls Club came from grants, according to the club's 2009 annual report.

During a school board meeting held during negotiations between the club and the school district in 2004, a line written in the school re-use agreement was scratched out. The sentence stated that the club was not prohibited from leasing portions of the parcel on a temporary and infrequent basis for special events.

Turn said he believes the line was omitted during a period of time when there were a lot of unknowns about what impact charter schools would have on the community.

"We do know that charter schools have been around for a while. During the time periods when the club is open, it would be a great fit for us to be able to rent that facility to them," Turn said. "Right now, we are unable to rent to the charter school for any reason of any kind."

Turn said the club would likely rent the gymnasium to all three charter schools, although he said he has not been in contact with any charter schools yet.

"To us, there is no point in spending a lot of time with the agreement with the charter schools until we even knew it was possible," Turn said.

Superintendent James Hess said he and others met with officials from the club several years ago regarding the Bemidji Youth Learning and Working program leasing the club's gymnasium for its physical education classes. He said the district was told the BYLaW program could not lease the facility.

"Due to the timing of when kids would be coming, how the space would be occupied and how we would use it, we didn't think it was the right time to make that commitment," Turn said.

The BYLaW program is currently housed in the Downtown Education Center and uses space in the Bemidji National Guard Armory for physical education. At the time, however, the BYLaW program was located across the street from the old high school property.

"As I understand it, at the time, BYLaW had to rent out the National Guard Armory," Hess said. "So, even though the Boys & Girls Club was close and handy and had a gymnasium, these kids were not welcomed there."

Potter responded by saying the club was not ready to enter into an agreement with the district at the time because the club had just opened.

"We have always wanted to be a good partner with the school district," Potter said. "When we were approached, we just thought, 'We're just not ready.' For us to commit right then, we didn't want to make a decision and then later have to back out."

Steve Young, a Boys & Girls Club board member, said he was excited about the possibility of having the school district lease the facility but was cautious because the Club had not completed its long range plan yet.

"But we did send a letter saying that we would be willing to rent the gym to BYLaW," Young said. "We were certainly open to doing that because it would have been an important source of revenue for us."

Hess said when the school board visited this issue a few years ago, it was not interested in having the Boys & Girls Club lease the facility to competing interests, such as charter schools.

"I wonder if the district isn't beyond the point where it is concerned about competition from the charter schools," Young said. "We've had them around for a while and just listening to the conversation tonight, you have excessive enrollment. I don't see it as giving the charter schools any kind of competitive advantage."

According to Leinen, the value of the parcel before it was sold to the club was $122,000. The value of the demolition of the space was $235,000.

"The district has invested in making the Boys & Girls Club active to the tune of roughly $350,000," Leinen said.

The issue of whether the school district would be required to provide transportation of the charter school students to and from the club was brought up at the work session. Currently, by law, the school district must provide participating charter school students transportation to and from school.

"We would add to our excess transportation costs by transporting them from their charter school and back and forth to the Club," Hess said.

Leinen suggested the club would need to find out if the district would be expected to provide transportation and if it would be reimbursed.

"Diving in further and continuing to support charter schools to a greater degree than we already do is an issue we want to consider," Leinen said.

Young said he sees this revenue proposal as a way for all school districts to work for "the good of the community."

"By making us stronger, we can continue to provide the kind of homework help we give kids, career counseling and citizenship lessons, and ultimately we are both working for the same goal," Young said.

School Board Chairman Bill Faver was also chairman of the board in 2005. He said working on the establishment of the Boys & Girls Club was the "highlight" of that year.

"It was a very difficult year for the school district," Faver said. "At that time, the school district and the Boys & Girls Club really did form a partnership for the benefit for the youth in our community. It's been largely successful."

Faver said there are still some issues that are controversial for the school board regarding charter schools, but the school board has come to realize that charter schools are here to stay.

"We're trying to figure out what that means exactly," he added. "We are trying to wrap our heads around the fact that we are sharing a community of students and competing for resources," Faver said.

Faver encouraged the members of school board present Monday to look into collaborating with the Boys & Girls Club in the future and to consider that the ByLAW program is still using the Armory.

"I think it is really imperative we not let tensions regarding charter school interfere with the relationships with the Boys & Girls Club," Faver said.

Turn said the Boys & Girls Club will need to make important decisions on next year's budget by April.

"There are all sorts of collaborations that can happen," Potter said. "It was unfortunate that charter schools were kind of starting when we were starting, and in one sense, we got caught up in the middle of what that meant to the community."

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