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Area schools may see new funds: Bemidji-area districts newly eligible for ‘achievement and integration’ funding

BEMIDJI—Four Bemidji-area school districts could receive some extra money for cross-cultural programming and events.

Bemidji Area Schools, Red Lake School District, Cass Lake-Bena Schools and Clearbrook-Gonvick School are all newly eligible for "achievement and integration" money, that, if officials there choose, would mean an extra $360 per non-white student and $10 per white student for those districts.

Staff could spend that money on after-school or inter-district programming designed to get students of different cultures talking to—and learning from—one another. That could mean cross-district summer programs, coding camps, or finding more space for families and school staff to get to know one another.

"Really moving beyond, like, the turkey bingo, just pulling people in and giving a few updates," said Stephanie Graff, the Minnesota Education Department's chief accountability officer. "More really meaningful interaction...and meeting families where they are with all their cultural and linguistic differences."

A school district such as Bemidji's, she added, could use that money for its broader school climate work. Districts could also use the integration money for culturally important get-togethers or school-sponsored events.

The three districts around Bemidji are eligible because they have considerably more American Indian students than their neighbors, Department of Education officials said, and Bemidji's is eligible because it adjoins those districts.

The integration money is intended to help districts put together programming that could close achievement gaps and create integrated learning environments for students from different racial or economic backgrounds.

But the money comes with something of a catch: in order to get any of it, districts would need to levy a portion of their total achievement and integration revenue from district taxpayers, which could mean property tax hikes. Bemidji Area Schools, for instance, would need to levy approximately $182,000 here to receive another $424,000 from the state—about $607,000 in total, according to state staff.

And it's not exactly new, either. Bemidji and those surrounding districts are eligible for that integration money now because, Graff said, state education department staff took another look at a statewide desegregation rule that had previously not included American Indian students.

"For a reason that we're truly just not sure of...several, several years ago, this rule was interpreted differently to actually exclude American Indian students," Graff said. "And so, when we include American Indian students in the definition of protected class consistent with the rule that is in place, these three districts—Clearbrook-Gonvick, Red Lake and Cass Lake—are now eligible for the program."

But district leaders here said they're still deciding if they'll seek the new-to-them revenue. The local tax levy is of particular concern.

"That's one of the big pieces that we're trying to figure out, is whether or not we want to do that," Superintendent Tim Lutz said of the levy. "If it's worth it going to the taxpayers, or if we can find funding from some other source and still do some cool cross-cultural kind of things."

If the district pursues it, administrators there would have until mid-March to submit to the state a plan outlining how they'd plan to spend that $607,000. They'd also need to check in with the state every year and hold annual public meetings about the plan.

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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