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District hopes for property tax relief for residents

BEMIDJI — As the Bemidji School District digests changes enacted by the state Legislature, school administrators said they foresee benefits to local taxpayers.

“I see many advantages,” said Superintendent Jim Hess.

Hess led a Monday afternoon School Board work session as district staff updated board members on the expected impacts of the completed legislative session.

Some have dubbed it the “education session,” as the Legislature voted to provide $485 million more toward k-12 education, including full funding of all-day every-day kindergarten and providing a 1.5 percent increase in the per-pupil funding formula in both 2013 and 2014.

While it appears many actions will benefit the district and its residents, Hess said information specific to the Bemidji School District still is being obtained. “The situation is still in flux,” Hess said. “We don’t have all the answers, but we’re narrowing them down.”

He and Chris Leinen, director of business services, said Monday it appears local taxpayers will pay lower local property taxes as the state kicks in additional dollars toward education.

Specifically, the district would have the option of converting portions of its $501-per-pupil operating levy, which residents voted to extend seven years in November, to other levies that come with higher equalization rates resulting in higher state aids.

“(A Minnesota Department of Education employee) said this will undoubtedly provide us with some property tax relief for our local property taxpayers,” Hess said.

More detailed information is expected within the next few weeks, he noted.

As for all-day, every-day kindergarten, Hess said the increased state funding begins in 2014-15 and the Bemidji district — which has funded its all-day program through the voter-approved operating levy — will have to decide how best to respond.

School Board member Jeff Haack said the district has been very clear and on message with its residents in explaining the specific programs funded through operating levy funds. He said the district must be very careful in communicating with residents about the changes that could affect that funding and the destination of their dollars.

“Our constituents have been very gracious” in approving the levy over the years, Haack said.

Dropout ages increased

The School Board also mulled the potential impacts of a legislative change increasing the allowable dropout age from 16 to 17.

“My hope is that we get kids that much closer to graduation so that it’s just so much more tempting to stay in school,” Hess said.

That said, he acknowledged the increased age would have an impact on school and district staff.

The district will examine the effects this year and continue to talk with school counselors, teachers and administrators to gauge the impact, he noted. “Any student that drops out, that’s a loss,” Hess said.