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School continues talks on potential budget cuts

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The Bemidji School Board is exploring how it might reduce the school district's operating budget by about $692,000 for the upcoming fiscal year.

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With about 35 school district staff members and others in attendance, the board reviewed a list of potential staffing adjustments at a work session Wednesday night. The majority of the operating budget pays for personnel.

"It's a very difficult process," Superintendent Jim Hess said.

Director of Business Services Chris Leinen said last month that the school district needs to make about $692,000 in adjustments to remain at an 8 percent general fund balance. A school district policy calls for a general fund balance of about 8 percent to 10 percent of the fiscal year budget at any given time.

Board Chairwoman Ann Long Voelkner said the need to adjust the budget stems from the state not fulfilling its obligation to fairly and equitably fund education as well as rising costs of transportation, health care and other items.

School principals shared proposals for staffing adjustments developed by school district leaders, which totaled nearly $923,000 in reductions.

"We don't have to implement this whole list," said board member John Pugleasa.

"This is just a starting point for discussion," Hess added.

Besides teachers, proposed adjustments also reach other areas, including support staff, administration, food service and transportation.

"These reductions can't all be placed on the shoulders of teachers," Hess said.

Northern Elementary School Principal Bruce Anderson said potential staffing adjustments at the elementary level include reducing the number of classrooms by two.

"Exactly where that would be, I couldn't tell you," he said.

Staffing adjustments may also include a reduction in allied arts and eliminating library paraprofessionals at elementary schools.

The proposed adjustments along with others would nearly meet the school district's target to reduce staff at the elementary level by 5.88 full-time equivalent employees, with 5.8.

At Bemidji Middle School, potential staffing adjustments include the elimination of an assistant principal position, a reading specialist position and a math specialist position, Principal Jim Wheeler said.

The assistant principal position would not be filled after current Assistant Principal Jon Sand retires. Meanwhile, the proposal includes the addition of a half-time activities director at BMS, a role that currently falls under Sand's responsibilities.

The proposed adjustments at the middle school total 2.12 FTE, which is 0.18 more than the target reduction of 1.94.

Brian Stefanich, assistant principal at Bemidji High School, shared the proposed adjustments for BHS.

"Our target was 4.45 and we hit 4.40," he said.

The proposed adjustments include industrial technology, math, science and other subject areas. Stefanich said the classes offered at BHS stem from student registration.

"Our registration is based on student choice," he said.

Director of Human Resources Jordan Hickman and Hess outlined proposed staffing adjustments in other areas.

"We have quite a list of other reductions," Hickman said.

He said potential staffing adjustments include reductions in Title I positions and several other positions funded by grants that are ending.

Another potential cut, he said, is a full-time teacher position at First City School.

"Their numbers have been significantly down throughout this year," Hickman said.

Concerns voiced

Many people attending the work session spoke in support of keeping library paraprofessionals in elementary schools.

Debra Rossman, media specialist at Horace May Elementary School, said the school's reading program has grown stronger throughout the years and the test scores show it. Without the support of a paraprofessional, she said students' scores may suffer.

Also, library paraprofessionals oversee libraries while the media specialists fulfill another part of their responsibility -- technology support for the school, Rossman said. With no paraprofessional, she said the library would have to close at times.

"I'd really hate to close it because our kids are doing such a good job," she said.

Parent Dawn Dahl voiced her support for library employees. She said her son, a second-grader at Lincoln Elementary School, is reading Harry Potter books, which are around 400 pages long.

"Those things wouldn't have happened without our great library staff," Dahl said.

Joyce Siegert, media specialist at the school, said cutting library paraprofessionals will mean closing the library at times such as when she teaches.

"It's going to be a very big change, and not for the better," Siegert said.

Many people also voiced concerns about potential reductions at BMS.

Kevin Waller, an eighth-grade geography teacher at BMS, said he is concerned how reductions would impact school safety and improving student instruction.

Amanda Kinnander, who teaches family and consumer science at BMS, said she is concerned about the proposal to cut one of the school's two assistant principal positions.

"Not replacing our assistant principal is going to be really difficult," she said.

She said the loss of an administrator will put a huge strain on staff members. "We are dealing with one of the most volatile age groups in our society."

"It really is a serious matter," said Jon Hunt, a Bemidji police officer who serves as a school liaison at BMS. "One of (the school district's) goals is to create a safe and welcoming environment."

He said administrators at the middle school serve as positive role models for students. He added that the proactive work done at BMS by the school's principals, staff members and programs, some of which may be eliminated, is essential.

BMS Assistant Principal Kathy VanWert also noted the school district's goal of a safe and welcoming environment.

"And I believe this goal will be compromised at the middle school if we lose an assistant principal," she said.

The board will begin considering staffing adjustments at its April 21 meeting.

Pugleasa said the board understands that its decisions will disappoint and anger some.

"We will do the best that we can with the resources we have," he said.

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