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Bemidji area schools to discuss extracurricular policies

BEMIDJI – It’s about what’s best for the kids, Schoolcraft parents said Monday as they asked the Bemidji School Board to reconsider its position barring charter school students from participating in the district’s extracurricular activities.

“I always felt very included and I saw it as an opportunity to build self-esteem, to meet other kids in the community and my future teammates,” said Meghan Gulmon, recalling her years as a St. Philip’s student who was permitted to compete in Bemidji Middle School athletics.

Now a mother of two Schoolcraft Learning Community students, Gulmon said she wants her children to have the same opportunities.

“Middle school, at 12, 13 and 11 years old, that’s really a great time for (students) to have as many opportunities as they can,” said Erika Bailey-Johnson, who has two sons at Schoolcraft.

The Bemidji School Board agreed to consider the issue, not promising to change its policy, but committing to an ongoing conversation.

“I think we need to be open to dialogue, even if it leads us to the same end,” said school board chairman John Pugleasa.

The Bemidji School District currently allows private-school students to participate in its extracurricular activities as long as they enroll in a course for that semester. The district does not, however, allow charter school students to participate in its extracurricular activities. Charter schools are separate public schools with their own school districts and school boards.

Bill Faver, a Bemidji School Board member, said the district has a long history of collaborative relationships with other schools and organizations and invited charter school parents to present a proposal that mutually benefits all parties.

Existing relationships between the Bemidji School District and charter schools have been one-sided with the Bemidji district carrying the costs of special education and transportation, he said.

“We want to be careful about the collaborations that we get in so we don’t end up draining the resources we have,” Faver said.

Still, the school board generally was open to the idea of continuing the discussion. Pugleasa said the school board and administration would take the input under advisement and name in the coming weeks several individuals to a committee that will further explore the issue with charter school representatives.

“My thought mainly is fact-finding, dialogue apart from a formal meeting to say, ‘Here are the challenges that we have that we come up against time and again,’” Pugleasa said.

Schoolcraft parents suggested that the conversation center on the inclusion of charter-school students in middle school grades, noting that high school inclusion would invite more complications such as competitive tryouts.

“It’s more of a participatory opportunity than it is a competitive opportunity,” said Schoolcraft parent Marla Patrias.

In presenting a list of talking points to the school board, Patrias noted Schoolcraft parents are willing to offset additional costs to the Bemidji School District and provide all transportation needs that fall outside of the normal busing schedule.

She also said Schoolcraft would provide the necessary paperwork to ensure all extracurricular students were meeting the district’s eligibility requirements.

“If there’s a path through all these obstacles … let’s figure out what it could be,” said Mark Morrissey, a Schoolcraft parent.

Bemidji School District Superintendent Jim Hess pointed out that Schoolcraft is one of three local charter schools.

Any changes in how the district handles Schoolcraft would have to also apply to TrekNorth Junior & Senior High School and Voyageurs Expeditionary High School, he said.

Further, Hess said, some middle school parochial students compete on higher-level teams in select sports, such as wrestling, boys swimming and soccer.

“It would be complicated to say, ‘Well this part of the policy applies, this part of the policy does not apply,’” Hess said. “That was, and always has been, one of the biggest concerns.”

With private-school students, he said, they actually become Bemidji School District students as they enroll in semester-long classes.

“They actually join District 31,” Hess said, referencing the Bemidji School District’s official name.

Such an action is more complicated with charter school students because they already belong to a charter school district, which is its own public school district, he said, explaining that a student can only be enrolled in one public school district at a time.

“I think it would be important that you appoint at least some member of the administration to be a participant there (on the committee) to help with pointing out some of the laws and rules,” Hess said. “You might have great ideas, but it might not work when you try to boil it down to everyday language.”