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School district reaffirms decision not to allow charter students to play sports

Bemidji schools Superintendent Jim Hess, right, talks about the school district's relationship with charter schools with Rep. John Persell, left, DFL-Bemidji, during a Friday afternoon legislative briefing with the Bemidji School Board. At center is board member John Pugleasa. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

Parents have choices in Bemidji, and that's good, say Bemidji School Board members. But that means attending charter school eliminates students from Bemidji School District extracurricular programs.

"We're different entities, completely," Bemidji schools Superintendent Jim Hess told Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, during a meeting with the Bemidji School Board on Friday afternoon.

"They are a separate school district - each charter school is a separate district," Hess said.

Persell met with the School Board for a legislative update, and School Board members told Persell that in solving the current state budget crisis, the district has already paid its dues. The district borrowed $9 million to cover Gov. Tim Pawlenty's shift of $1.8 billion in state school aid payments.

Most of the discussion, however, focused on charter schools, in reaction to Persell's meeting in December with officials of Schoolcraft Learning Community and TrekNorth schools.

Citing they bring revenue to the school district through special education programs and through the district's operating levy, the charter school officials want their students to be able to participate in the district's sports and other afterschool activities.

"There was some information that wasn't correct," Hess told Persell Friday.

"In Bemidji, with a constant number of students, we are actually in competition with charter schools for student enrollment and, frankly, that's how we're funded," Hess said.

"We have worked hard to develop the programs that we have and the extracurricular activities that we have," he added. "We have an excellent program, excellent opportunities for kids. "

Those programs are there because the district has sacrificed from other parts of the budget, the superintendent said. "It has been our belief that these extracurricular activities are reserved for kids that attend Bemidji public schools."

Charter schools have been pressuring Persell and other legislators to think otherwise, Hess said, "to pick up their banner and carry it."

Persell, at the time, told the charter school officials that "the points you're brining out are well-founded." He added that "what troubles me is that we don't provide the education that I believe in and know is being provided by charter schools within the public system."

Hess asked Persell Friday where he stood now on charter schools, and the Bemidji Democrat said he was "solidly on the fence." He said his mother, a music teacher, would have preferred music programs over football or basketball, but Persell added that sports do create revenues for school districts.

"Why do parents want their children to go to charter schools?" he asked, admitting that his granddaughter is attending a charter school.

"All three of my kids graduated from Bemidji public schools," he quickly added. "The Bemidji public schools are the best in the state, as far as I'm concerned."

But there are reasons for creating charters schools: smaller class sizes, specialization in languages or trips abroad, less burdensome state mandates.

Taking into account arguments for charter schools and public schools, "somewhere in here is actually where things are at," Persell said, motioning to a point in the middle. "Is there room here for kids to come in and play sports? Or in the band? I can tell you, it's being talked about."

In order to save state money, legislators are talking about doing away with open enrollment policies and doing away with charter schools. "Is that going to save us any money? All of those things are on the table," Persell said.

Charter schools help "bring market forces to public education," said board member John Pugleasa. "If you bring competition to public education, and the market approach to that is ,markets will drive excellence, we need a good product so that we can keep customers, which are our students."

As a public school board member, Pugleasa says he has no problems with charter schools. "That competition will provide better education. ... I think it's OK to have choice in Bemidji, but choice needs to be choice."

There are advantages in that marketplace that the traditional public school has, and there are certain advantages to charter schools, he said.

"Where we have a challenge is when some of those market advantages that we have are open to everybody," Pugleasa said. "By virtue of having higher class sizes, because we've invested in co-curricular activities because we believe that is part of a well-rounded educational experience ... we're committed to the point of making significant investment in that area.

"If another organization that is funded separately comes to us and wants to take advantage of those activities that you have, because they think they're good too, they have the advantage of having to spend all of their resources for language immersion, art, foreign travel, small class size, and have access to one of the market advantages that we have," Pugleasa said. "That runs counter to a market approach."

Persell said he'd like to see "a coming together" of public and charter school officials to discuss concerns, rather than wait for a state mandate.

"I'd be glad to have those conversations," Pugleasa said. "But my allegiance is to the kids who attend here. I won't agree to anything that will come at the expense of those kids."

"This is all taxpayer dollars," Persell said.

"The whole notion of a protected class, which is the way I believe charter schools have been treated in Minnesota, is just not right," Hess said.

The state faces a $994 million budget shortfall this biennium and up to an $8 billion deficit in the next, something that will take more than cutting spending or raising taxes, Persell said. Yet, lawmakers are trying to hold E-12 education harmless.

The Bemidji School District has had to borrow $9 million at interest because of state aid shifts with Pawlenty unallotments, Hess said, taking the district from 90/10 state and local funding to 73/27 percent.

"Some teachers are losing jobs because we had to go out and borrow money to make payrolls," Hess said. "There was a statewide property tax recognition shift statewide of $600 million, $423 million this year in delayed aid payments to school districts."

A shift is better than a cut, because of the promise of future payment, Hess said. "We hopeful for that. .... We certainly don't want people to think that K-12 schools are getting off scot-free because we've got a lot invested and we have a lot at stake."

The school officials also lobbied for mandate relief, with Jordan Hickman, director of human resources, hoping to stop a state rules process now underway to provide voluntary paraprofessional credentialing.

"The proposed rule is unnecessary since requirements for paraprofessional training are embedded in both federal and state statutes," he said. The rule also takes away local control by transferring credentialling to the State Board on Teaching.

"When there are very limited dollars to go around, and many good competing areas where you can fund, it's difficult to make those hard choices," Hess said, adding that credentialling paraprofessionals will have an added income expectation among the unions.