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Bemidji Schools: Officials grateful for levy support

By a landslide, the Bemidji School District's operating levy referendum passed Tuesday.

With all precincts reporting, the unofficial general election results show that 13,103 voters said "yes" to renew the district's current levy of $501 per pupil for five more years while 5,239 voters said "no" to the renewal.

"These dollars will allow us to continue vital district priorities such as all-day, every-day kindergarten, replacement of high mileage school buses and efforts to maintain reasonable class sizes, especially at the primary grades," Superintendent Jim Hess said in a statement Wednesday.

He said "we are truly grateful for the strong community support and want to extend our sincere appreciation" to the members of the Keep Bemidji Proud Committee, district staff, Bemidji School Board members and the community.

"I'm completely relieved," Dee Sweeney, chairwoman of the Keep Bemidji Proud Committee, which organized efforts to promote the referendum, said Wednesday. "I'm just really proud of the community. I think that everybody understands how important education is and is willing to support that with their own dollars."

The Bemidji School Board decided to pursue a referendum this year after an attempt to extend and expand the current levy failed last fall.

Without the renewal of the levy, the district would have lost $3.2 million in local and state revenue annually, according to the Keep Bemidji Proud campaign. The current levy is set to expire at the end of this school year.

The district uses the current levy, which voters approved five years ago, to provide all-day, every-day kindergarten and the K-1 program, replace school buses and reduce class sizes.

Had the referendum failed Tuesday, the board would have had to make program and personnel cuts that could have amounted to the equivalent of 70 full-time jobs, according to Keep Bemidji Proud.

Sweeney said the campaign, which included presentations around the community, a rally and door-knocking efforts, was truly a community effort.

"And it just kept growing," she said.

Sweeney said the renewal of the referendum will allow the district to "continue to offer the diversity of programming and quality in our schools." A renewed referendum, however, doesn't mean the district won't face cuts in the future, she said.

"This is just keep-our-head-above-the-water money," she said. "But we won't have to do anything devastating."

Sweeney said the Bemidji School Board asked for a "modest amount" in Tuesday's referendum due to hard economic times.

"I think Bemidji does have every reason to be proud of their community and their schools," Sweeney said.