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Community forum addresses upcoming school referendum

With a special election less than a week away, the Bemidji School District held a community forum Tuesday night on its operating levy proposal.

The forum drew a handful of community members to the J.W. Smith Elementary School Auditorium. A forum scheduled for last week was canceled due to lack of turnout.

On Nov. 6, the school district will ask voters two questions --to continue the current operating levy of $501 per resident pupil for another six years and to raise that amount by $199 to $700 per resident pupil each year for six years.

With the $501 option, the school district would maintain what it is providing through the current five-year operating levy -- all-day, every-day kindergarten and the K-1 prep program, school bus replacement and class size reduction.

Director of Business Services Chris Leinen noted that the current operating levy, which expires next year, generates $2.96 million each year with one-third of the dollars coming from state aid and two-thirds from the local levy. Local charter schools receive the state aid portion for the students attending their schools, which amounts to $163 per pupil under the current levy.

Over five years, the school district will have purchased 39 new buses in its 80-bus fleet, Leinen said. He also said the addition of all-day, every-day kindergarten and the K-1 prep program requires 11 additional teachers, plus related services, while additional teaching sections have been added to improve class sizes.

He noted that the first all-day, every-day kindergarten class has now reached the third grade, and the standardized test scores of these students are "very encouraging."

With an additional $199 per pupil, which would generate about $1 million more each year, the school district would do the following:

E Dedicate $350,000 each year to hire another counselor at Bemidji High School, another counselor at Bemidji Middle School, a library media specialist at the middle school, another school district nurse and three additional teachers.

E Dedicate $150,000 each year to support the school district's computer technology backbone and buy equipment that would help strengthen science, technology, engineering and math programs.

E Dedicate $250,000 each year to start a textbook replacement fund.

E Dedicate $250,000 each year to school safety improvements, with the primary focus being on proposed upgrades at the middle school.

Leinen said the Bemidji School Board selected these priorities based on community input through processes including surveys and forums.

He added that the tax impact of the additional $199 per pupil would be $18.80 per year for a taxpayer with a $50,000 house, $37.60 per year for a $100,000 house and $75.20 per year for a $200,000 house.

Expressing the need

Superintendent Jim Hess said it's recommended that schools have one counselor for approximately every 400 students. He said Bemidji Middle School, however, has approximately one counselor per 962 students and Bemidji High School has approximately one counselor per 750 students.

Meanwhile, Leinen said the three additional teachers that would be hired under the additional $199 option "would be put in the places where the need is the greatest."

He noted that while enrollment in the school district has decreased, the local birth rate indicates that the school district will see an increase in elementary school enrollment in the not-too-distant future.

And with two school district nurses, Leinen said one would serve the elementary schools and the other would serve the secondary schools.

He also said supporting the school district's computer technology backbone and buying equipment that would help strengthen STEM programs will help students compete in the global community.

Starting a textbook replacement fund would take the burden off the operating capital fund, which the school district currently uses to buys textbooks. The school district spends about $300,000 per year on textbooks, Leinen said.

Meanwhile, he said the middle school is facing $2.6 million in security improvements as recommended by the St. Paul-based Midwest Management Resources in its study of the school building.

"We have a new environment that we're living in today ... and we need to address that," Leinen said.

He said the school district currently is taking measures to better secure BMS, but more work needs to be done.

"We've got cameras in the parking lot, in the building," Leinen said.

He also said BMS, like BHS, has a police liaison assigned to the building and about a half a dozen unannounced canine searches each school year.

"And those are helpful," Leinen said.

But, he said, the physical design of BMS does not met the security needs of today. Concerns include the openness of some of the school's classroom pod areas, where students are grouped by grade level and taught by a team of teachers in four classrooms.

"It was designed and built in a time when open learning environments were very popular," said John Pugleasa, chairman of the School Board.

This summer, the school district put alarms on many of the school's exterior doors that were previously unattended. Now, BMS funnels traffic through the main entrance.

The next phase of security improvements at BMS includes relocating the main administrative office to an area near the main entrance to allow supervision of people entering the main entrance.

In a later phase, plans include enclosing the school's seventh- and eighth-grade pods, which would involve building hallways within the pods and adding doors, windows and walls.

Levies around state

School operating levies across Minnesota generate an average of $766 per pupil, Leinen said. And, he said, levies in the metro area are higher with Minneapolis and St. Paul at $774 per pupil and other metro school districts averaging $1,072 per pupil.

He noted that more than 10 percent of school operations will be paid from voter-approved levies next year across the state. And, he said, while the state Legislature added $800 million in new funding for schools for the current two-year budget cycle, $550 million in local levies are set to expire in one year.

Polls open Nov. 6

The polls will be open for the special election from 2-8 p.m. Nov. 6 at Horace May, Lincoln, Central, J.W. Smith, Northern and Solway elementary schools, Bemidji Town Hall and Liberty Town Hall.

Voters can find their polling place, along with maps, using an online poll finder on the school district's Web site at or the Keep Improving District Schools Web site at

Absentee ballots are available through the District Office at 3300 Gillett Drive N.W. or 333-3100, extension 121.