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Back to school: Area legislators tour schools, meet with students

Minnesota Rep. Matt Bliss, right, meets Bemidji High School senior Lauryn Petrich during a tour of the school on Monday. He was joined by Minnesota Sens. Justin Eichorn and Paul Utke, second and third from left. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer) 1 / 2
Bemidji High School senior Gabe Goodwin, left, demonstrates one of the school's robotics projects to, from left, Minnesota Rep. Matt Bliss, Minnesota Sen. Paul Utke, and Bemidji High School Superintendent Jim Hess on Monday when several state legislators toured the school. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer) 2 / 2

BEMIDJI—A few Bemidji-area lawmakers checked out Bemidji Area Schools before the state legislature reconvenes next month.

State Sens Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, and Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, and Rep. Matt Bliss, R-Pennington, took in some quick Bemidji High School orchestra and choir performances, checked out the school's A/V lab and in-house television studio, and watched senior Kedrick Johnson machine a bearing block for one of the high school's robotics teams.

Rep. Matt Grossell, R-Clearbrook, joined later, and the four legislators met with student councillors over lunch before checking out the district's pre-k and middle school offerings.

The goal, explained Superintendent Jim Hess, is to show area lawmakers what's going on in the district so they'll keep its needs in mind when they're working in St. Paul this spring.

For instance: Bemidji Area Schools spends hundreds of thousands of dollars busing students across the geographically massive district, and lawmakers agreed last spring to send more transportation money to the district. Hess said he hopes legislators can agree this year to send the district even more.

Even-year sessions tend to focus on large-scale bonding bills, which borrow millions upon millions of dollars to pay for construction and infrastructure projects across Minnesota. Bemidji Area Schools leaders aren't angling to get any projects in a bonding bill, Hess said, but adjacent Red Lake School District hopes to get about $14 million for new classrooms, a larger cafeteria, and more. And Bemidji State University has been working for years to get a plan to replace aging Hagg-Sauer Hall funded through a bonding bill.

Last spring's E-12 education bill featured a pair of 2 percent bumps to the state's per-student funding formula—which accounts for the bulk of school districts' annual revenue—and a smattering of policy changes, including relaxed teacher licensure standards.

A newly minted "grow your own" teacher training initiative designed to add color to a largely white teaching workforce is only available to school districts whose student population has 30 percent or more non-white students. 25.8 percent of Bemidji Area Schools students are non-white, Hess said at a July school board meeting with Bliss and Grossell, and thus the district missed out on the program this year. Hess, who stressed the importance of teacher diversity in a pair of districtwide strategic planning meetings last summer, suggested adding alternate criteria like, perhaps, an absolute number for minority students rather than a percentage.

The 90th Minnesota Legislature reconvenes Feb. 20 in St. Paul.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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