Bemidji school board discusses potential boundary adjustments and more during special meeting
Elementary school boundary adjustments, updated class size projections and activity fee increases were discussed during a special Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education meeting on Thursday, April 8.
BEMIDJI -- Elementary school boundary adjustments, updated class size projections and activity fee increases were discussed during a special Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education meeting on Thursday, April 8.
During this meeting, board members heard recommendations from Superintendent Tim Lutz and other district officials regarding the impacts of the impending closure of Central School, ahead of the official school board meeting set for April 19.
“The April meeting is traditionally our most difficult meeting to have, because that's usually the deadline in terms of making any adjustments in our staffing,” Lutz said ahead of the meeting.
Bemidji’s school district is facing a severe budget deficit in the wake of COVID-19, falling enrollment and November’s failed operating referendum. To keep the state from coming in and taking financial matters into its own hands, the district must cut $5.6 million from its budget to fill the projected gap.
Many of the topics the board discussed at the special meeting stem from the decision to close Central Elementary School, which passed 5-1 during a board meeting on March 15, and was projected to save the district $460,000 to $465,000.
CARES Act funding
Before discussion of the three main topics on the agenda -- classroom projections, boundary adjustments and activity fees -- ISD 31 Business Director Krisi Fenner cleared up some misinformation which she said had circulated through district staff earlier Thursday morning regarding federal CARES Act funding.
“We want to continue to be transparent and open so that everyone is aware of how we're using these funds and what we're doing with what we are receiving,” she said. “It's important to us to provide this update this evening to correct any misinformation that has circulated.”
Fenner said final CARES Act allocations were just made available this week and that the district will be receiving $5.1 million, an increase from what had initially been projected.
“This funding is a one-time band aid that helps cover the revenue loss due to the pandemic, but it does not address the future operating deficits our budget is facing,” she said. “Here is where I want to clear up any confusion. When our enrollment dropped this past fall by 280 students, due to the pandemic, we were contractually unable to adjust staffing to address the lost students, and the lost revenue.”
Fenner said $2.7 million of that funding will be used to make up the lost revenue in the current year.
“Additionally, even after all the reductions and painful decisions that have been made already this year. We have not reached our target reduction goal of $5.6 million. I estimate that we will need to use at least $1.6 million of the (CARES funding) next year to continue to make up the difference in our budget.”
She also mentioned that the projections that have been shown at every school board meeting since November have just been for the district’s general fund. However, food service and community services, which are funded separately, are also facing revenue drops, so the remaining CARES Act funding will be used to fill those gaps.
“This is a one-time band-aid. If we don't make the budget adjustments needed now, we are only compounding the problem, and looking at even larger reductions down the road,” she concluded.
Classroom adjustment projections
After the budget projection update, the board heard recommendations on class size adjustments throughout the district, many stemming from the closure of Central Elementary and the redistribution of its students.
District Human Resources Director Jordan Hickman addressed the board regarding the potential class size impacts and assumptions made for enrollment next fall.
Due to Central’s closing, students from Central will either be moving to Horace May, J.W. Smith, Solway, or Lincoln Elementaries depending on where they live. Most of the students from Central will be going to either J.W. Smith or Horace May. Some students in the northern section of the J.W. Smith attendance boundary will be moved to Northern Elementary.
According to the new attendance boundary adjustments:
Six current Central students will go to Solway
Three current Central students will go to Lincoln
32 current Central students will go to Horace May
27 current Central students will go to J.W. Smith
26 current J.W. Smith students will go to Northern
These numbers do not account for future kindergarteners, nor the current Central Elementary third-graders who will be going to Gene Dillon for fourth grade.
Hickman said every year when class sizes are projected, assumptions are made, for example, that most of the kindergarteners will continue on to first grade in the same school, or that cohorts of kindergarten students will be similar sizes from year to year.
This year, those assumptions are harder to make, due to the uncertainty of the pandemic. Many parents may have chosen to delay kindergarten for a year for their children, due to closures. Many students who are distance learning could choose not to come back.
“This year, the kindergarten projections are much less reliable because we do not know how COVID impacted families’ decisions about sending their students to kindergarten this current school year, and we don't know how that's going to impact their choices in sending their kids to kindergarten next fall or moving them into first grade,” he said. “There's a lot more volatility than normal.”
Hickman said he was concerned about exceeding recommended class sizes in the schools where Central students would be moving to. For example, 25 students per class is the district target for first and second grade, 30 students in third grade. If the number of students exceeds this, splitting a section into groups of 16 or 17 per classroom would be too small and cause funding issues.
“If we see any variation there, it's going to exceed those targets, and I'm looking at projecting what would leave us some room to accommodate additional students that may attend in those grade levels in that newly defined attendance area,” he said.
Hickman said due to the budget crisis, the district needs to lean toward being more conservative in its staffing projections.
“With our budget deficit and projection. I'm going to be recommending a much more conservative approach, where we go to the bare bones foundational staffing that we need based on the numbers that we feel pretty confident about,” he said. “If we have more kids show up, just as in past years, I'll come back to the board in August or even September, and say, ‘We need approval for an additional section here.
“That's one of the conversations where I would appreciate some feedback this evening is how close do we want to look at pushing our class sizes towards those maximum targets, because that has an impact on meeting our budget projection, but it also has an impact on how we serve our students and our community.”
Hickman said that these staffing projections are different at the high school level, as there, students select their own classes, so staffing is determined based on class registration.
One board member asked Hickman about requests made by families to send their children to certain elementary schools, outside of their assigned attendance boundary. Hickman said this would have to be addressed earlier in the year than usual, so staffing can be taken into account.
“If a person requests to go to a school that's already at the target number, we're not going to approve that request,” he said. “If it allows us to keep another building below that target number and the building they want to go to has space to accommodate them, then we're more likely to approve that request.”
Typically, the April board meeting is when staff cuts are made, as it comes after many students have registered for classes, and before staff contracts are finalized. Lutz said this update to board members was, “to make sure that they know as we change our boundaries, what the classroom size adjustments will be. This also kind of a precursor to the April board meeting when we end up having to make some cuts based on classroom adjustments and sizes for next year.”
Voting to close Central Elementary meant board members will now need to make the call on where to send Central Elementary’s 109 students next year.
Most of the work to determine this -- where students will go, potential cost increases and decreases -- has already been completed. The special meeting served as an opportunity for Lutz and the transportation director, Rob Wicklund, to explain the “why” behind these decisions.
Wicklund provided some stats about the transportation department -- it transports students to 21 different buildings, including area private schools and charter schools, with 62 total general education routes and 12 special education routes.
He said overall, the effect of closing Central on the transportation department is not particularly significant.
During the March 15 meeting, Lutz said the numbers had been crunched on transportation costs and with the closure of Central, bussing students to other schools would only cost the district around $500 more per year.
Wicklund said currently three buses serve Central students in the morning and four buses take Central students home in the afternoon.
He answered other questions presented by the board, giving time to make adjustments ahead of the final approval and informing Central Elementary families where their children will be attending next school year.
Current elementary school boundary maps in Bemidji can be viewed on the Minnesota Department of Education website.
This decision will be finalized at the April 19 board meeting, then that information will be distributed to Central and J.W. Smith families.
Payment of fees and other charges policy
Potential changes in the current fee structure for sports, activities and event tickets were a large topic of discussion during the March 15 board meeting, and they were again brought to the table Thursday night.
While the move would serve as a potential revenue generator during the district’s budget shortfall, many board members seemed worried that the move would discourage students from participating in school activities.
“It's to find the right balance between charging what we need to charge, but also being fair and equitable,” Lutz said. “We don't want any increases to cause students to be unable to participate. We want to take a careful look at coming up with a middle ground, a balanced approach to whatever we charge so that it's fair, equitable and doesn't preclude anyone.”
Troy Hendricks, the activities director at Bemidji High School, addressed the board to talk about potential fee increases.
“If you look at what we charge in activity fees compared to what other schools of like size charge, we are quite low,” he said. “I think in this situation that we're in this budget crisis, it wouldn't be difficult for us to raise our fees to whatever number you think is appropriate and still be well within what other schools our size are asking or charging.”
Board members discussed potential impacts on student participation, and also brought to the table the potential of taking away free district staff activity passes or guest passes and charging students more based on how expensive a given activity is for the district, instead of a flat activity fee.
“We're not going to balance our budget on the backs of activities, but yet it is something that people need to understand,” board member Jeff Lind said. “This is where our budget has led us -- to look at everything.”
No formal action was taken during the meeting.
The full meeting can be viewed on the Bemidji Area Schools YouTube channel. The next school board meeting will take place on Monday, April 19.