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Carlson listens as Bemidji School Board talks 'wish list'

District 4 Sen.-elect John Carlson, R-Bemidji, met with Bemidji School District's Board of Education Monday afternoon to discuss the goals of the school district for the next legislative session. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

This holiday season, the Bemidji School Board has added removing unwanted state and federal mandates to the top of its wish list.

District 4 Sen.-elect John Carlson, R-Bemidji, met with school board members and school administrators to hear their concerns in a special meeting Monday afternoon.

Among the board's list of New Year desires included holding charter schools accountable to the same measures as traditional public schools under state law; repealing and replacing the current School Pupil Transportation Formula; and amending Minnesota School Finance to provide for full funding for voluntary all day, every-day kindergarten.

But what caught the most attention Monday was the issue of giving school boards the authority to renew operating levies.

"It's getting tougher and tougher to get levies approved and continued," Bemidji School District Superintendent James Hess said.

According to Hess, the Minnesota School Board Association will be asking the Legislature for the approval to have school boards redo current operating levies.

"If you look at county government or city government, commissioners or councilors can all levy taxes," Hess said. "School board members are elected just like city councilors or county commissioners. But they have no authority to levy taxes. It's a tool that school districts need in order to keep the doors open."

Carlson responded by stating his personal philosophy was to keep things "local."

"Personally, I always thought it was bad public policy, and maybe even borderline unconstitutional, that a school district should even have to levy for operating expenses, when clearly, the state constitution says we shall provide a good education system," Carlson said. "My personal preference would be to not even go down that road. If a school district wants to put a levy forward, wonderful. And if the community supports it, then by all means, pass a levy to do that."

Bemidji School District business manager Chris Leinen told Carlson the issue of operating levy control will be an issue that will be "front and center" soon.

Leinen added a "significant number of dollars" are scheduled to expire from levies that were voted in.

"The next two years, we're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars across the state that are going to expire unless it's renewed," Leinen said. "This issue is going to be front and center. There's a lot of money at stake on the local levy side."

Carlson responded by saying his hope is that the state fixes the "structural problems" to eliminate the need for the operating levy.

Hess noted there are differences in opinions among school board members regarding the issue, but offered his own opinion.

"I'd love this scenario where we wouldn't have to go out and ask at all," Hess said. "Where the things we identify for basic needs were met through a school finance formula that had the amount of resources, equity."

The school board also brought the issue of school district employee contract negotiations.

Hess mentioned the idea of having negotiations occur at the state level, rather than the local level.

"We've been doing negotiations with every one of our bargaining units every two years," Hess said. "If there is truly is no money, there is no relief valve to turn to. And if districts are in the same boat as the state, it may make sense to have a statewide salary freeze."

He expressed frustrations to Carlson on the mandated statewide deadline that requires all school district contract negotiations to be completed by Jan. 15 of the even year.

"We're to go out and negotiate in good faith, but with no money and with a hammer holding over our heads saying it has to be done by Jan. 15," Hess said.

Carlson replied to Hess' notion by stating he has heard from other city officials from around the state telling him to consider pushing for a statewide salary freeze.

"If it's done on a statewide basis, then the cities, counties and school district are all going to be a part of it and then it will all happen in one fell swoop," Carlson said. "I think it can make some sense. Not that people are going to be happy about it, but it is certainly a way of sharing the pain."

Last year, after several months of negotiations, the Bemidji School District gave teachers and other employees a small settlement.

"But it would have been a lot easier if we would have been able to recognize at the forefront of negotiations that there is no new money," Hess told Carlson. "We need to be realistic about our expectations."

School board member John Pugleasa, who was on the district's negotiations committee, said the board is not looking for ways to "stiff the teachers." He said, however, he is concerned when the district has no money to give.

"It's when there is no money, and we have deadline to complete negotiations," Pugleasa said. "It becomes very personal. What that translated to us last year was six-plus months of very contentious negotiations. Trust was fractured; it's just very destructive. To punch ourselves out until we're lying there beaten and bloody until we're all willing to sign something - that doesn't seem like a good thing."

Board member Ann Long Voelkner pointed out that negotiations can also lead to positive changes within the school district.

"I think there is value in negotiation, but in times of dire circumstances, there may be a different process that provides governance," Long Voelkner said. "If boards were treated as counties or cities, in terms of being able to extend an already-voted-on levy, then parents can contribute more of their time to their kids. I think the whole issue needs some serious thought."

Hess said he thinks the state is facing a "financial emergency."

"When you've got a financial emergency, then I think other rules should apply," Hess said.

After the meeting, Carlson said he would take into consideration what he heard at the meeting, but does not yet know if he has been assigned to an education committee at the state level.

"If I'm not on the committee, the best I can do is lobby my fellow senators that are on the committee and say, 'Look, I wish I was there, but here's the concerns that we have in Bemidji.'"

Carlson said his hope is to have some impact on removing disparities in state funding.

"My personal goal is to continue to lobby to see how can we make sure funding happens so we don't have to rely on levies for operation," he said. "Levies should be reserved for school districts' special projects. I think the answer is to allow more local units of government to make those decisions."