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School officials list top legislative concerns in meeting with area lawmakers

BEMIDIJI – The Bemidji school board’s top legislative issue is not new, but it remains a critical problem, district officials said Wednesday in a special meeting with local legislators.

Topping the list of legislative priorities was a request for the Legislature to address inequities in the state’s school-transportation funding formula.

“This issue’s been very frustrating for us as a school district,” said school board member Bill Faver.

The Bemidji school district was under-funded for student transportation by more than $514,000 in 2011 while the Minneapolis and St. Paul districts made a combined profit of more than $12 million, according to an April memorandum from the Minnesota Department of Education.

For every $1 of transportation expenses those two districts incurred, they received $2.75 in revenue, Faver said.

“At the same time, other schools had to pull money out of their general funds,” he said.

Faver said state funding for transportation exceeded expenses by nearly $32 million, yet the allocation of those funds is not funneled to the districts that need them most, like Bemidji, which covers nearly 825 square miles as its buses travel more than one million miles a year.

“The transportation funding formula needs to be revised to hold harmless those districts whose costs are higher,” Faver said.

Rep.-elect Roger Erickson, DFL-Baudette; Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji; Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids; and Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, all took part in the discussion.

“I think we’re going to have to do something,” Skoe said.

The difficulty in addressing the situation, he said, is that rural Minnesota lost several legislative seats through redistricting this year as the metropolitan area gained seats.

“The Richfields of the world are generally the gainers,” Skoe said, referencing the Minneapolis suburb.

Saxhaug, in addition to representing Bemidji also represents the Grand Rapids School District, which like Minneapolis and St. Paul is a so-called “winner” in the current system, generating more than $420,000 in revenue from transportation funding.

Saxhaug said the system should not create big winners and big losers.

“We’ve got to figure that out,” he said.

Chris Leinen, director of business services for the Bemidji district, noted that voters this year renewed the district’s $501-per-pupil operating levy that partially goes to fund new buses.

“Otherwise I think we would be in dire straits for keeping safe equipment on the road,” he said.

Kindergarten also a priority

The second-highest priority for the Bemidji school board is state funding of all-day, every-day kindergarten.

Minnesota currently funds half-day kindergarten, so districts like Bemidji that opt to offer all-day, every-day kindergarten programs must close the funding gaps themselves. In Bemidji, the district funds all-day, every-day kindergarten program through the $501-per-pupil operating levy.

School board member Melissa Bahr said there is a distinct advantage for having kindergartners in class all day each day, particularly since preschool is not a prerequisite for enrollment.

Many incoming kindergarteners in Bemidji are coming from situations where a caregiver is home with them during the day or they are at daycare with the same kids day after day, she said.

“They get into a classroom with 20 kids and it’s the social skills they need to learn to hit first grade up and running,” she said.

Bahr said all-day, every-day kindergarten is proven to help at-risk kids catch up, noting that within the first two months of first grade, students are expected to take tests requiring reading skills.

“If we can get them all up and running all together and hit first grade running, that would be the (best) thing,” she said.

Erickson, a 34-year former elementary school teacher, said he has seen the benefits of all-day, every-day kindergarten. Students living in one district that only had half-day kindergarten instead opted to attend a nearby district with all-day, every-day kindergarten. When they returned to their home district a year later, first-grade teachers had to, mid-year, take curriculum from second-grade teachers because the first-graders had already gone through the entire year’s curriculum.

“Children are really at a significant disadvantage if they don’t have all-day, every-day kindergarten,” said Jim Hess, superintendent of Bemidji schools.