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BEMIDJI SCHOOLS: Board backs referendum for $30 million school for grades 4-5

BEMIDJI – The Bemidji School Board passed a motion Monday to ask voters in the November election to approve plans to build a $30 million school for fourth- and fifth-graders that could accommodate up to 900 students.

There’s been ongoing debate this summer about possibly building a new school as the district’s elementary population continues to grow and officials look at educational and recreational space.

The largest increase in student population has been in the kindergarten through fifth grades, with an estimated additional 326 students in the next five years. During the July 7 meeting, the board was informed by district Superintendent James Hess that in order to put a referendum for a new school on the November ballot, they’d have to act soon.

So, Monday night, Hess presented the board with two options for a possible referendum. Option No. 1 would build a new K-5 school for 550 students and cost $700,000 per year in operating expenses.

Option No. 2 would build a new 4-5 grade school that would accommodate 900 students and would cost $1 million per year for 10 years. Both schools would be two-stories and would increase classroom size for the district, officials said.

Several locations were proposed for the possible new schools, including land owned by the district near Bemidji High School and land near Bemidji Middle School; however, that land is not owned by the district.

The layout for the proposed school would be based on Lincoln Elementary, which would allow the district to save time on designing a new school.

““We could replicate that same facility in another part of town or use it for a basis for a larger facility,” Hess said.

After learning Option No. 1 may change boundary lines for district schools, the plan met resistance from board member Jeff Haack, who cited concerns over transportation costs for displaced students to the new school.

“I need to at least kind of know if this is going to solve our problems. I’d like to know if that’s going to be the case with this new school,” he said.

After heavy discussion about both options, board member Richard Faver motioned to vote in favor of Option No. 2.

“As we really look down the road here, now is the time to sort of swing big,” Faver said. “Otherwise I see us, seven or 10 years, coming up to bat again for this.”  

Board member Melissa Bahr supported Faver’s motion, claiming the 4-5 grade school would make the transition to Bemidji Middle School easier for younger students.

“I think it will probably give them a bit of a boost. It will give them confidence,” she said.

Haack; however, disagreed with Faver’s and Bahr’s assessment, saying he was “hesitant” on the proposal “I have no problems going out and asking for another school in two years,” he said. “I would rather ask for the right school twice then the wrong school once.”

The board voted 5-1 in favor of Option No.2, with Haack voting no. District staff now will make preparations to submit plans to the Minnesota Department of Education. If the plan is approved there, the referendum would be placed on the ballot for the Nov. 4 election.

In other news Monday, Carol Johnson, chairwoman of the School Board, opened the meeting discussing the recent evaluation of superintendent Hess. She said the evaluation was positive and that the report listed his job performance as “satisfactory.”