Weather Forecast


BEMIDJI AREA SCHOOLS: Top priority is classroom space

BEMIDJI -- The process may have been intended to examine youth recreation space needs, but community input was clear: We must have more elementary classroom space.

"The No. 1 answer is clearly the elementary growth issue," said Jeff Schiltz, a consultant hired by Bemidji Area Schools.

Schiltz, representing Northern Minnesota Solutions Group, recapped to the Bemidji School Board on Monday the community input gathered from 20 forums held this winter in an "ideation" process to assess the needs and wants for future indoor and outdoor youth recreational needs.

However, as the Bemidji School District is experiencing ever-increasing enrollments in its younger grades, its elementary schools are running out of room to accommodate all the students. A referendum to authorize funding for the construction of a new elementary failed in 2011 and the district since has reopened Paul Bunyan Elementary as a kindergarten center.

Still, elementary classrooms are full, and consultants with Northern Minnesota Solutions said that was made clear during input sessions held throughout the district.

"Even though this started out with an athletic focus, it quickly went to educational needs," Schiltz said. "Session after session, just about every group had that, if not as their No.1 need for the community or the district, it was very close."

"As facilitators we try to remain very neutral and pull everything out, but it was just like (whoosh) elementary space issue, that was just where the conversation went," agreed Eric Kaiser, another consultant. "We tried to pull it back and ... (whoosh) it was back to elementary space."

Three phases

The ideation process is just part of the first phase of the consultants' work. Northern Minnesota Solutions -- a collaboration of Johnson Controls, Larson Engineering and Kraus-Anderson -- now will begin assessing existing facilities, budgeting for future needs and developing financial options. The second phase, to occur this summer, will involve creating a master plan and consulting again with district and community leadership. The third phase would be implementation.

Monday's special School Board meeting, held before the regularly scheduled meeting at Bemidji High School, reviewed the input gathered from the meetings held in February and March.

While elementary space was easily the top issue, Schiltz said No. 2 was the request for an indoor recreation center, such as a fieldhouse where athletes could practice sports inside.

He also said athletes at the high school asked for additional fields and facilities on campus so they could feel more closely tied with the high school and would not have to report to different locations throughout the community for practice and competition.

There also were numerous requests for a YMCA or additional gym space.

"I think a lot of that was just the feeling that communities should be able to access recreational facilities," Kaiser said, noting that there was an underlying theme desiring health and wellness opportunities for all ages.

Other wants that drew repeat mention included the replacement of the Nymore hockey arena and a request that the district continue to keep in mind not just the cost for construction, but also those for operation and maintenance.

But far and away, the top issue was elementary space. Consultant Glen Chido said every time that issue was raised, participants questioned whether the district could reconfigure its grade levels to alleviate pressure in the elementary schools.

Jim Hess, superintendent of Bemidji Area Schools, said there are a number of ways to do that, but one option would be to embrace the idea of one or two intermediate schools.

"To reconfigure grade levels, what has been suggested is to have kindergarten, first, second and third grade at neighborhood schools and fourth and fifth grades at intermediate schools ... and then six, seven and eight (grades) at the middle school, and nine through 12 at the high school," Hess said.

Doing that would free up the Paul Bunyan Center to be converted from a kindergarten center into an early-learning center, where the district could centrally locate its preschool and early-childhood programming.