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Referendum forum held; School board urges voters to support ballot question

James Hess, superintendent of schools for the Bemidji school district, talks about the district’s operating levy during a public forum Wednesday night at Lincoln Elementary School. Laurie Swenson | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI  — The Bemidji School Board held the first of four public forums Wednesday night at Lincoln Elementary School to discuss the referendum question that will appear on the ballot in this year’s general election.

The ballot question will ask voters on Nov. 6 whether they support renewal of the district’s $501-per-pupil operating levy, which has funded all-day, every-day kindergarten, lower class sizes and new buses.

The forums are being held at different locations around the city to give adequate opportunity for people to be informed and provide feedback, said James Hess, superintendent of schools for the Bemidji school district.

Only a few people attended Wednesday’s forum, which drew few questions and comments.

$3.2 million in funding

The current operating levy will expire at the end of the 2013-14 school year.

“Bemidji schools will lose more than $3.2 million in funding if the referendum fails and the operating levy is not renewed, Hess said. “That’s a huge amount when compared to our overall budget. That’s a large percentage of it.

He stressed that because the referendum is for a renewal of the existing levy, it would have zero effect on school taxes.

“A yes vote in this particular case would mean your taxes would stay the same,” he said.

More than 90 percent of Minnesota’s school districts have operating levies.

“That’s a very clear indication that Minnesota school finance hasn’t kept up, and school districts have had to go out to the public to ask for public votes in order to keep their doors open and to provide programs,” Hess said.

Years ago, school districts had excess mill levy operating referendums to provide special programs. But in recent years, because of lower funding to school districts and rising costs, “those operating levies are used just to keep the doors open,” Hess said.

“So it’s for basic kinds of things, bread-and-butter kinds of things, not those extra kinds of things that were funded in the past.”

Drastic cuts possible

If the operating levy is not renewed, the district will have to make drastic cuts to many programs and eliminate many others, Hess said. “We’d have to tighten our belts pretty dramatically.”

All-day, every-day kindergarten would be eliminated, class sizes would swell and fewer buses would be purchased, he said. Fifty-three jobs would be lost, the community would have less access to school facilities, athletics and activities would be reduced, student fees would increase and there would be reductions in college and career prep programs and music, art, gym and media-technology programs.

“It’s essential that our kids have all-day, every-day kindergarten,” Hess said. “Kids have more and more responsibility for learning every year.”

Kindergarten used to involve school readiness activities and a nap, he said. “Now there are no naps in kindergarten. Our kindergarten students are working hard.”

When today’s students finish kindergarten, most can read and do math, Hess said.

“We couldn’t possibly cover that if we didn’t have all-day, every-day kindergarten,” he said. “We need this to be competitive.”

Lower class sizes make it possible for teachers to reach all their students and provide a high level of guidance, Hess said.

As for school buses, “Our school district is huge, one of the largest in Minnesota,” he said, adding that 86 percent of the students in the district use school transportation.

The state provides some matching funds to school districts as an incentive for referendums, Hess said, noting that of the $3.2 million total, $2.33 million is the local share and the state kicks in $881,000, an amount that would  be lost if the operating levy was not renewed.

Hess said public schools across the United States are affected by the same factors that affect the finances of families. For example, the cost of heating fuel has risen significantly in recent years, and the cost of diesel fuel for local school buses – which were driven more than a million miles in 2011 – has doubled in the past few years. He added that school districts have experienced a shortfall of more than $3 million a year in funding of mandated special education programs.

The board is asking for a seven-year levy so that the next time the referendum comes up, it will be during a general election.

“We want as many people to weigh in as possible,” Pugleasa said.

An audience member questioned whether some voters might find seven years too long.

“We feel seven years is a reasonable time,” Hess said. “It gives us a solid basis for financial support well into the future.”

‘We need it’

“I’m here tonight because I truly believe the referendum is a key and critical piece to our opportunity that we provide for quality and excellent education for Bemidji,” said school board member Ann Long Voelkner. “That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m on the board is to work to provide that quality education for the kids of our community.”

“Our community has a history of supporting this referendum over the last decade,” school board member John Pugleasa said, adding that a referendum is a necessary tool for most school districts. “We’re grateful and pleased that the community has supported it.”

“We need it,” school board member Melissa Bahr said, noting that the school board has been as frugal and efficient as possible while bringing quality education to children in the community.

Hess said Bemidji is a great community with a great school system. “I’m very proud to be part of it.”

He praised the district’s high-scoring students and the award-winning programs in academics, arts and athletics within Bemidji schools.

“We’ve got some great schools — they are fantastic,” Hess said, adding that Bemidji schools compete well with schools in the rest of Minnesota and the nation. “We have an awful lot to be proud of.”

The other forums will be held from 7-9 p.m. Oct. 16 in the cafeteria at Bemidji Middle School Cafeteria, Oct. 23 in the Bemidji High School Commons and Oct. 29 in the cafeteria at Northern Elementary School.

Laurie Swenson
Laurie Swenson is a reporter/copy editor for the Bemidji Pioneer. She has been with the Pioneer since 2004.