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Bemidji Area Schools: School board meets with local legislators to address priorities

Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, second from left, speaks in response to legislative issues that Bemidji School District Superintendent Jim Hess, right, discussed in a special work session Wednesday night. Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, left, also attended the meeting. Sitting to the left of Hess is school board member Bill Faver. Pioneer Photo/Anne Williams

Bemidji School District armed state legislators with ammunition on issues such as referendums and transportation as legislators go back in session on Feb. 4.

Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, and Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, listened as the District's superintendent and the school board discussed priorities for state legislators to address.

The District, plagued by having to borrow $9 million to cover shifts in state funding, has doubts of state reimbursement and how K-12 funding will be dealt with by legislators in session.

The state currently must balance its $1.2 billion budget deficit. The Minnesota Management and Budget estimates the state budget deficit will grow to $5.4 billion by 2012-13.


District Superintendent Jim Hess suggested the state remove tax breaks for seasonal home owners within the District.

"Why do we give tax breaks for other people who have seasonal homes in the area?" Hess asked. "It's a matter of being fair and equal. It's unreasonable to expect people to pay less because they live somewhere else."

Olson responded by saying, "They don't pay less. The money is given to the state, instead of locally."

Hess noted the district had to take out a loan to borrow money after Gov. Pawlenty used the power of unallotment.

"We have to pay real interest on that money," Hess said. "We've got to find a way to make school districts whole."

"We have a constitution that, as long as its rules are followed, it requires negotiations that the governor and legislature need to come to a balanced budget," Olson said. "What the governor chose to do was different."

Olson expressed her concern that in order to get away from referendums, the solution should not be relying on property taxes.

Hess entertained the idea of giving the school board the authority to set local taxes without specific voter approval. Currently, if the county or the city seeks revenue funding, it has the authority to tax the voter population. The school board must get approval from the voters in order to tax.

"I oppose the idea of shifting taxes in areas where people have lowest income," Olson said. "If we move in that direction, it would take more responsibility off the state's shoulders."

Hess responded by saying he "worried that if we continue this practice of allowing cities and counties the opportunity to generate the revenue they need, but do not give the same availability to school boards, people will say, 'What is the sense of having a school board?'"

"I object to that idea," Olson said. "Then we're going along with the idea that we're not going to equalize those payments on the state level based on income levels. That's a dangerous road to travel."


Hess suggested the state make a new formula for determining transportation cost reimbursement to districts.

Currently, the District is required by the state to transport its students, as well as students from the local charter schools. The state reimburses the District based on the number of students in the District.

"We lose money on transporting charter school kids," Hess said. "We lose money on transporting all our kids. We lose double when it comes to charter school kids."

Based on information from a 2008 report by the Minnesota Department of Education, Hess reported it costs the District more than $85,000 to transport charter school students.

According to Hess, the District loses $178.35 per student.

"The problem is not about transporting charter school students," board member Ann Long Voelkner said. "It's the state reimbursement formula."

"We should be pushing with our gubernatorial candidates and asking them critical questions," Olson said.

Other concerns the board addressed included reducing what it called "unfair" state mandates, such as sharing grant money with non-public schools and the one-time penalty fee imposed on districts that do not meet agreements with unions by Jan. 15 of the even year.

"You can't put one foot on the break, leaving us with a 0 percent increase in funding, and have the foot on the brake by mandating negotiations in an upward force," said Business Director Chris Leinen. "It has to be one or the other."

"I have to hear both sides of this issue," Olson said. "I certainly sympathize with the difficult situation you are in."

Olson urged the school board to consider the idea of consolidation in the District, such as sharing administrators.

"Legislators are looking closely at this area," Olson said. "Times have changed as far as new technology. Where those opportunities are, we need to be as creative as we can be."

The timeliness of the District to meet with legislators was prudent, as Olson told the board that legislators are pushing hard for early resolution initiatives.

"Legislators are pre-hearing a lot of bills to move them through before session starts," Olson said.