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School board embarks on process to identify facility needs for indoor, outdoor recreation

BEMIDJI — As he offered advice on the newly launched process for examining facilities needs for Bemidji Area Schools, school board member John Pugleasa quoted what has become a bit of a refrain for the school district this year.

“Be bold,” he said Wednesday evening during a special school board meeting. “Thinking small won’t pay off for today’s and tomorrow’s youth.”

The school board met with representatives from Northern Minnesota Solutions as the consultants embark on a process to identify future indoor and outdoor recreation needs.

“We are just in the infancy of this process,” said Superintendent Jim Hess. “We are just beginning.”

Multiple meetings are planned with a variety of groups, from the business community to middle-school students, as consultants aim to engage the public in the process. A community-wide meeting is set for 7 p.m. March 4 at Bemidji High School, open to anyone who wants to be involved.

“The most important thing with all of this is that you’re creating communication and dialogue within your community,” said Eric Kaiser, who retired after a 34-year career in education and is now part of Northern Minnesota Solutions. “Because if anything is going to be implemented, the community has to have buy in, has to be heard, has to be part of the process.”

Already, consultants held visioning sessions with district administrators and representatives from various youth sports organizations. Wednesday evening, they met with the school board to hear their thoughts on the district’s strengths, challenges, vision and what they believe success would look like.

School board members’ answers ranged widely, as they were encouraged to submit multiple responses for each question. But as they ranked their options later, it became clear that top challenges include funding constraints, achievement gaps and increasing elementary enrollment, which while a positive is resulting in cramped classrooms. Other concerns included graduation rates and parental support.

But they also described what success would look like, perhaps in a new fieldhouse or elementary school.

Looking beyond facilities, school board members alluded to the idea that those involved in extra-curriculars are more invested in their academic performance, have higher graduation rates and improved test scores.

“We have a unique opportunity, and it’s a window of opportunity, to shape the future of our community,” Hess said. “To bring all of these things together at this time creates that window of opportunity. We have increasing enrollment, we have decreasing school district debt, we have a community that has high expectations for what we do and how we do it, and for the quality of place. We have a school system that is excellent but is always looking to improve. We have indeed a unique opportunity, and a window of opportunity, to shape the future.”

The meeting concluded as the consultants sought final words of advice, or closing thoughts, from each person in attendance.

“Fiscal integrity,” said Chris Leinen, director of business services for the district. “We have to be able to afford it from a taxation standpoint, you have to be able to build it and you have to be able to operate it, and then you have to be able to replace it at as it’s all worn out.”