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Charter school leaders seek alliance with Bemidji School District

From left, Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, listened to Rep. Dave Hancock, R-Bemidji, as he spoke to staff and parents of Bemidji's three charter schools at an informal meeting Friday afternoon. Present, but not pictured, was Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

With three charter schools and a resident school district, Bemidji offers parents a unique landscape for public education.

For this reason, local charter school officials want to see Bemidji become a leader in the state by bringing all four public school districts together to collaborate and share resources.

Scott Anderson, director of Schoolcraft Learning Community, Dan McKeon, director of TrekNorth Junior & Senior High School, and Julie Johnson-Willborg, director of Voyageurs High School, met with legislators Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, and Rep. Dave Hancock, R-Bemidji, Friday afternoon at SLC's site at Concordia Language Villages to discuss legislative issues.

Facilitated by Anderson, the meeting between the charter school leaders and legislators was held informally, with parents, charter school board members and students present and involved in the discussion.

When asked if he would support the idea of having legislators, charter school officials and Bemidji School District leaders sit down in a meeting to discuss issues, Persell said he was supportive of the idea.

"I think we need to get all the questions in front of us and this has to be about educating the children," Persell said. "There are parents and taxpayers who feel like they aren't getting the funding that should be following their children going to a public school."


The charter schools are in support of legislation that would prohibit the Minnesota High School League and other school districts from making policies that would discriminate against public charter school students from participating in resident district activities. This issue has consistently been a top priority for charter school leaders in Bemidji.

In recent years Anderson and McKeon have publicly supported allowing charter school students to play on Bemidji School District's sports teams. In the past the Bemidji School District has allowed private school and homeschooled students located within the district's boundaries the option to participate in its extracurricular activities, but not public charter school students.

The Bemidji School District currently has an operating levy of $501 per student. According to Anderson, the local portion of those dollars, about $350, goes directly to the Bemidji School District. The state portion of the levy, approximately $150, follows a charter school student to the charter school.

"Right now the bulk of that money, about $350, stays in the district as revenue," Anderson said. "If you take approximately 400 charter school students times $350 you can see we are generating about $140,000 a year of revenue to District 31."

Anderson said the Minnesota Charter School Association is in the process of proposing that all of the levy dollars follow the student to their school.

"It does make it a little tempting at times to take the high road and say (to the Bemidji School District) 'We're supplying you this funding and you are generating revenue, but we can't play on your fields,'" Anderson said.

Anderson said he fears that someday rules would be changed at the legislature that would direct all of the levy dollars to the district of residency.

Carlson responded to Anderson's concerns by stating he believes it is wrong for a school district to levy for operating expenses.

"Our constitution clearly states there is a mandate to provide education for our students," Carlson said.

McKeon said he does not feel the reason the Bemidji School District does not allow charter school students to play sports is based on money.

"There are a lot of ways where it won't cost (the Bemidji School District) any more money," McKeon said. "I think, in reality, they see it as a competition and that their business offers something that our business doesn't. And so long as that is the spirit, know that our kids cannot play."

Hancock brought up the idea of having parents receive a voucher from the state, which would act as a paid ticket for parents to send their children to a public school of their choosing. Hanson previously taught for four years at a school in Colorado.

"To me, a voucher is empowerment," Hancock said. "To me giving a voucher to a parent that says 'It is your responsibility to chose where you want your child to go to school,' gets them in the process."

School land trust

Several weeks ago Anderson attended Charter School Day at the state capitol, in which representatives from charter schools across the state attended. He said he came across something that he had not heard before - that charter schools have been left out of the revenue generated from school land trust funds.

More than one century ago the state of Minnesota reserved two sections in each township as trust lands that would benefit education for children. These trust lands have yielded millions of dollars for education through land and timber sales, leases and mining. The proceeds go to the Permanent School Fund, which invests the money and supports the resident school districts. The interest from this translates to roughly $30 per student in the state.

According to Anderson, the school land trust fund was established long before charter schools were created, so all of the dollars received from the lands goes to the Bemidji School District.

"For us it would be about $4,000. It is money we could use to help kids," Anderson said.

Persell said he is involved in a bipartisan coalition in the state house and senate that is committed to increasing the school trust fund and holding down property taxes.

Anderson said he will likely look into this issue more in the future.

Other top issues

The charter schools oppose any requirement that charter schools reimburse the resident school district for excess transportation costs beyond state aid, as charter schools have no taxing authority and have no say in the design or delivery in the transportation services.

The schools also oppose any requirement that charter schools reimburse the resident school district of a special education student for excess costs, as special education is a federal mandate and charter schools have no taxing authority to cover federally mandated programs.

Both the Bemidji School District and the three charter schools support funding for voluntary all-day, every-day kindergarten programs. Currently, the state only funds school districts for half-day kindergarten.

The charter schools and the Bemidji School District also all support rewriting the state transportation funding formula so that it reflects the number of miles driven by school vehicles, instead of on the number of students who use bussing services. Currently the Bemidji School District provides all of the transportation to all public and private school students located within the district's boundaries.