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'Let the voters decide': Bemidji School Board votes to build new elementary school

Bemidji School District's Board of Education Chairman Bill Faver, left, speaks with concerned community members during a listening session before the regular school board meeting on ways to alleviate classroom space shortages. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Making tough decisions is sometimes like watching sausages being made, according to Bill Faver.

"You may like the end outcome, but watching it being made is not all that pleasant," the Bemidji School District's Board of Education Chairman said.

As a long-term solution, the school board voted unanimously to seek public approval for the construction of a new four-section (four classes per grade) elementary school.

As a short-term solution, the board voted 5-1 to research the purchasing or leasing of modular buildings at Solway and Northern elementary schools.

School board member Gene Dillon voted against the idea of adding portable classrooms buildings, stating he was against the idea altogether.

The location of the new elementary school and the cost of portable classrooms have yet to be determined. The school board will meet at 6:30 p.m. Monday, March 28, when it potentially could vote on a short-term solution.

The school board faced a packed house at its meeting Monday night at the Bemidji High School as members spent three hours discussing the best solution to deal with classroom space issues in the elementary schools. The majority of school board members based their decision to build a new school on the growing population of Bemidji and Beltrami County.

Building a new school would cost the district roughly $12 million, according to Chris Leinen, the district's director of business services, assuming the district builds it on land it already owns. Voter approval in the form of a referendum would be needed in order for the school district to build a new school.

The school district would need to issue bonds, which would need to be supported by the residents in the school district. A majority "yes" vote would guarantee the bond holders that they will get paid and gives the school board authority to levy local taxes each year as payment of those bonds when they come due in order to pay off the bond holder.

Planning a new school can be an extensive, lengthy process, Leinen said. If a vote were to be held, putting it on the ballot for next November might be too aggressive because details such as the school's location, size and other details would need to be finalized before then. Also, he said, the district would need to submit information to the state Department of Education to justify building a new school.

The district currently holds a debt of about $30 million. Leinen suggested the school board could take the existing $30 million and roll it together with a $12 million bond issue. Then it could reissue a total of $42 million with bonds and pay for them over a 20-year period of time, he said. This would theoretically lower the impact of a monthly payment from the levying of local taxes.

"By combining two debts, you could actually keep tax impact to a minimum," Leinen said.

School board member Ann Long Voelkner said while she believes a new school will alleviate the enrollment issues in the long run, she expressed concerns it could have on families when neighborhood school lines would have to be redrawn. She is also concerned about the time and effort it would take to gather support from the community.

"There is peril in this proposal," Long Voelkner said. "When I hear we are living in the hardest times since the Great Depression, there is peril in making change to a community. I do not want to jeopardize that community support. I still have a lot of concerns about this."

Bemidji High School student school board representative Jade Hovet said most of the students she talked to at the high school were supportive of the idea to build a new elementary school.

"For me it makes the most sense," she said. "I feel it will be a lot of work to get (a referendum) passed, but I think it would be worth it."

During the school board's discussion, Superintendent James Hess stressed the importance of the impact this decision would have on the tax payers.

"It will be critical to structure our debt so it doesn't cause people to lose houses or have difficulty paying taxes," he said. "It would be unfortunate to pass a bond to build a new school but didn't have the money to operate our schools."

In two years, residents within the school district will need to vote to renew the operating levy of $501 per student. Now residents could potentially have to vote this November for the construction of a new school.

"We need to put our best campaign forward and let voters decide," Faver said. "Then we adapt from there."

Jon Shorter, a teacher at Horace May Elementary, watched as the school board members cast their votes Monday night.

"I am thrilled that the board has decided to build a brand new school - it was a unanimous vote," he said. "I think parents will be thrilled that this will take the pressure off of schools that are overcrowded. We are at a crisis point with this issue."

Community members Sarah Karvakko and Holly Alcott said while they felt OK with the board's decision to build a school, they are concerned about the board members "dragging their feet" on a short-term solution.

"I feel like they are on the fence about a lot of things," Karvakko said. "I worry that all this beating around the bush will result in them choosing to reconfigure grade levels."

"I'm worried they will choose something that will disrupt all grade levels," Alcott added.

One parent who was standing outside the Media Center after the vote said she was concerned that adding portable classrooms would cost the district too much in the short term.