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Dr. Jim Hess: Operating levy helps maintain quality

On Nov. 6, voters in Bemidji Area Schools will be faced with an important question: Should the existing operating levy of $501 be renewed?

School districts, unlike city councils or county commissions, are required to seek voter approval in order to levy a tax. Due to poor state and local economies, school district finances have been relatively flat for more than the past decade. Fortunately, Bemidji Area Schools received voter approval for an operating levy in 2003 and 2008 and have used the proceeds from the current levy as they were intended:

1. Provide all-day, every-day kindergarten,

2. Purchase safe, reliable school buses, and

3. Keep reasonable class sizes.

Today’s kindergarten classrooms are a far cry from yesterday’s kindergarten. Due to America’s fast-paced life and increasing academic demands, much of the curriculum previously found in first and even second grade has been pushed down to the kindergarten classroom. This includes expectations for kindergarten students to read and write, along with recognizing numbers up to 100. Kindergarten children learn science, social studies, computer skills, and receive instruction in physical education, music, library skills and art. This is in stark contrast to the kindergartens of yesterday, which focused on readiness activities, naps, and socialization skills for children. Revenue from the $501 per student operating levy makes all-day, everyday kindergarten possible in Bemidji Area Schools. Minnesota’s School Finance Act only provides funding for half-day kindergarten.

Bemidji is one of the largest geographic school districts in Minnesota. Our students ride more than 1 million miles per year as they travel to and from school. It is imperative Bemidji students are transported in safe and efficient buses. A portion of the operating levy is used to replace older, less-efficient school buses. With a fleet of over 80 vehicles, we have replaced four to five buses annually. We transport 86 percent of the district’s student population and also students who attend the three area charter schools: Schoolcraft Learning Community, TrekNorth High School and Voyageurs Expeditionary High School; and students who attend area private schools including: St. Philip’s, Heartland Christian Academy and St. Mark’s.

Class size can be a contributing factor in student achievement. The ratio of students to staff is carefully monitored as we plan our instructional program. We try to keep class sizes lower in the primary grades; recognizing younger students are not independent learners and need more adult guidance and intervention. Operating levy dollars are used to hire additional teachers in Bemidji Area Schools to optimize learning opportunities and keep children in the best learning environments we can provide with the available resources. In recent years our elementary enrollment has increased to the point where some school facilities have reached capacity. As a result, we have reopened Paul Bunyan Elementary which now hosts four kindergarten classes from Northern Elementary, two kindergarten classes from Solway Elementary and the district-wide K-1 program, which was previously located at J.W. Smith Elementary. Without the resources provided in the operating levy, our student-teacher ratios would be dramatically larger and class sizes would swell.

Bemidji School Board members have pledged to continue the use of a renewed operating levy for providing all-day, everyday kindergarten; maintaining a safe and efficient transportation system; and keeping reasonable class sizes. If voters renew the operating levy, there will be no increase in property taxes since this is an extension of the existing levy. If the levy is not renewed, we will have no choice but to start the painful process of making reductions which will dramatically change the quality of programs and children’s experiences in Bemidji Area Schools.

If you would like to have more information about the operating levy, please contact us at 333-3100 extension 105.

Dr. Jim Hess is superintendent of schools for Bemidji Area Schools