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BEMIDJI SCHOOL BOARD: No time for November vote: Board, staff discuss future improvements, possible new facilities

BEMIDJI — After the Bemidji School Board spent more than two hours Monday discussing its visions and goals for future facilities, the district’s business manager broke the news: A voter referendum won’t be happening this year.

“This project has grown beyond the ability to get it done for the November election,” said Chris Leinen, director of business services.

You could almost feel a physical shift in the room as School Board members registered his recommendation.

“I am profoundly disappointed,” said board member John Pugleasa.

Board member Ann Long Voelkner said it was her expectation, ever since the 2011 referendum failed to gain voter support for a new elementary school, that the district would go to the voters this fall.

“I thought we were on target for November, I really did,” said Carol Johnson, board chairwoman.

The final half-hour of the meeting had a different tone, as the board acclimated to its new position. Twice, Pugleasa asked Leinen if he was recommending that the district abandon its November goal.

“I don’t see how we can meet this deadline with as many questions as you have,” Leinen said.

Pugleasa then turned to Superintendent Jim Hess for his opinion. Hess said Leinen would be the person to compile the supporting documentation and plans to submit to the Minnesota Department of Education for its consideration before a question could even be put to the voters.

“It would be difficult to go against what (Leinen’s) recommending,” Hess said.

Even if the district could find some shortcuts — such as using an already-in-existence building plan, like the one it used three years ago based on Lincoln Elementary’s footprint — it would be very tough to meet the timeline, he said.

“I think it would be an amazing feat if we were able to pull that together,” Hess said.

The School Board has never directly said it would seek voter approval for a new school building this fall. However, in the last year, its members and staff have repeatedly wrestled with increasing enrollments in the younger grades and cramped elementary schools. Kindergarten classes were first reintroduced at Paul Bunyan Elementary in 2011 and the district has since added additional sections of kindergarten there to alleviate space for other grades in neighborhood elementaries.

The School Board also opted to launch an investigation into the indoor and outdoor recreational needs and hired consultants in January — with funding provided by the George W. Neilson Foundation — to develop a master facilities plan for recreation space, both indoor and outdoor.

Meanwhile, the district continued to hear about the aging heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning units at Bemidji Middle School. Replacing the HVAC system — which operates on a freon that is being phased out by the Environmental Protection Agency — could cost about $3 million.

On Monday, the School Board seemed to initially inch closer toward crafting a multi-tiered referendum question that, if approved by voters, would have the potential for solving all three issues.

Members discussed the pros and cons between building a new traditional K-5 elementary versus an intermediate school that would serve all fourth- and fifth-graders in the district, and they also weighed whether the HVAC improvements at the middle school were enough or if, for added security, internal walls should be added throughout portions of the open-concept school.

On recreation, they seemed to agree on a desire for an indoor fieldhouse, but also wondered about other wants, such as a longterm plan for replacing Nymore Arena and whether the track at Bemidji High School should be improved.

It was then the conversation shifted.

“We’re to the point now where we’ve almost timed out” on the possibility for a November referendum, Hess told the School Board, when someone asked about a timeline.

After hearing that staff did not recommend moving forward on even one of the three potential questions this year, the School Board initially attempted to move on, focusing on a potential new time schedule and weighing the benefits and drawbacks of a referendum in an off-year election or a presidential one.

But at the tail-end of the meeting, School Board member Jeff Haack wondered, when did we get off track for a November referendum?

“When did that door shut and I didn’t hear it?” he said.

Hess said there were probably signs, suggesting that perhaps it was in April and May, when the district was still in its “ideation” phase with the recreational facilities process. It was then, Hess said, that the School Board should have probably been having the conversation it did Monday night.

“We really didn’t have a singular focus and we needed to,” he said.

Everyone seemed to agree that the data accumulated — enrollments projections and facilities use and age — was beneficial.

“I think it just got bigger than we thought,” said Melissa Bahr, School Board member.