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Kolness, Johnson and Lutz are superintendent finalists at Bemidji Area Schools

Bemidji Area Schools board members listen as Tony Kinkel, one of five candidates for superintendent, answers an interview question on Saturday at the school district’s Downtown Education Center. The board narrowed down the candidates to three finalists: Tim Lutz, Rochelle Johnson and Mike Kolness. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI—The field of candidates for Bemidji Area Schools' superintendent job narrowed to three Saturday.

School board members selected Mike Kolness, Rochelle Johnson and Tim Lutz to move on to a second round of interviews next week after a marathon round of hour-long interviews.

Board members ranked Kolness, who's been the superintendent at East Grand Forks Public Schools since 2016 and led Ada-Borup Public Schools for seven years before that, the highest in an informal straw poll after the last interview.

They ranked Johnson second. She was a combination superintendent and principal at Pine Point K-8 School before taking the reins at Cass Lake-Bena Schools in 2014.

And Lutz was ranked third of the five interviewees. He's been the superintendent at Kelliher Public School since 2008, and was a K-12 principal in Goodridge Public School for three years before that.

The board didn't ask Jim Wagner, the superintendent at Kimball Area Schools, and Tony Kinkel, a former Bemidji-area lawmaker who's led a series of small community and technical colleges across the country, back for second interviews.

Mike KolnessIn his interview, Kolness stressed the importance of school safety—"If you don't feel safe, it's going to be tough to learn,"—and keeping up with new technology. At Ada-Borup, he said, he worked to get an iPad or, later, a Chromebook for every student there, and he's putting together a similar plan in East Grand Forks. Kolness said he's set up parent meetings and tried to make inroads with the city's growing Somali population.

"It's really changed the dynamics of the district, but it's actually been really neat to watch," Kolness said.

Rochelle JohnsonJohnson said one of the biggest changes in education over the next 10 years will be a technological one.

"Students in this generation communicate quicker and faster and studies show that they communicate more than any other generation of students before them," she told board members. "Can we meet those goals? Are we where the students are?"

Johnson, who's from Red Lake, said she's good at developing relationships and has spoken with education and law enforcement leaders about race relations here.

"This whole community in the past decade or so has really made a lot of gains in embracing the cultures that are surrounding here," Johnson told board members. "I think I would be really good at being able to bring people together."

Tim LutzA former counselor, Lutz said it's important for schools to stay on the cutting edge, technology-wise, and stressed the importance of educational equity and closing the achievement gap.

"In a democracy, if we're going to be successful, we have got to put a high priority on educating all of our students," he said.

In his current post at Kelliher Public School, where about half the student body is American Indian, Lutz said he tries to be culturally sensitive and has worked to add American Indian literature in classes. He's also working on a curriculum to teach American Indian history there.

Kolness, Johnson and Lutz will come back for day-long second interviews this week, and board members are scheduled to narrow their choice to one person Thursday night.

Assuming the district and winning candidate agree to contract terms, whomever board members choose would begin his or her official duties July 1.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education and health for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He is a Minneapolis native and a 2009 graduate of St. John's University. Before moving to Bemidji, Bowen covered education, local politics, crime, and everything in between for the Perham Focus in Perham, Minnesota, and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis.

(218) 333-9798
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