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School board reviews budget projections

BEMIDJI — The Bemidji School District this year is on pace to expend nearly $1 million more than budgeted for this fiscal year.

Chris Leinen, the district’s director of business services, presented his projections Monday to the Bemidji school board.

“The bottom line is this really gives us a feeling for why it’s necessary to have an adequate fund balance, because a budget can vary over the course of a year,” he said.

Each spring, Leinen said, he compares budgetary expenditures in the general fund to past year’s expenditures to see where the district is at.

Leinen reported that through April last year, the district spent 71.7 percent of its total expenditures for the 2011-2012 year, and through April 2011, the district spent 72.3 percent of its total expenditures for 2011-12.

This year, the district has spent 73.8 percent of its budgeted expenditures, which, Leinen calculated, puts the district on pace to expend about $990,000 more than the $53.4 million budgeted.

“Comparing those percentages, it looks like we’re running a little bit hot,” Leinen said.

He encouraged the school board to view the projections as a reminder of the importance of a maintaining an adequate fund balance.

As school board member Jeff Haack pointed out, one year does not equal a trend.

“I wouldn’t react too aggressively in the current year,” Leinen said, “but I would plan for the next two years with a little bit of caution.”

When asked what contributed to the increased expenditures, Leinen said 80 percent of the district’s budget is spent on personnel.

“When we have additional students show up, we respond by adding the staff necessary,” he said. “You would rather (the projections were) right on, but the fact of the matter is, we’re seeing growth, both in students and in staff.”

Wi-Fi on Board

The Bemidji School District garnered a bit of statewide fame in March when the Star Tribune ran an article discussing wireless Internet availability on school buses.

Greg Liedl, the district’s transportation director, said the article reported that the Eastern Carver district was the first metropolitan district in the state to offer Wi-Fi on its buses, but noted  Bemidji was the first school district in the state to do so.

It started in fall 2011, when the Bemidji district installed a Wi-Fi device on one bus for 30 days.

The route was chosen because it was a longer route, about 90 minutes one way, with mostly secondary students so they were more apt to have a smartphone or tablet, such as an iPad.

After the test period ended, students were asked to email the district explaining why they believed Wi-Fi should continue to be offered on the bus.

“One of the most compelling reasons came from a student who said, ‘I don’t have the Internet at home. I rely on hotspots to do my work outside of school,’” Liedl said.

The district now has 15 Wi-Fi units in operation on buses: three are assigned to activity buses, 11 to route buses and one is a spare.

Students are able to complete some of their homework, logging onto site such as Study Island, which offers programming for math, science and language arts.

Wi-Fi is still plugged into the district’s servers, so the same filters apply on the buses as they do within school buildings.

“It’s very popular,” Liedl said. “Our drivers like it. Our kids are very occupied.”

Further, he said, he believes the system is helping to prepare students for the technological world beyond school.

“More and more of this stuff is going online,” Liedl said. “If you go down to the University of Minnesota, you’ll see it. You work with a tablet from the moment to hit the bricks at the U of M.”