Bemidji school board meets in person, discusses enrollment, funding, virus protocol
BEMIDJI -- Monday night the Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education gathered together in person for the first time since March.
It took some getting used to.
The atmosphere in the District Office board room didn’t look the same -- masks made it a little bit harder to hear, attendees were spread out a bit more than usual -- but the lack of Zoom-related audio issues certainly outweighed the new inconveniences.
“It’s nice to see everybody in person here, as much as possible,” Chairman John Gonzalez said while calling the meeting to order. “Even with the social distancing and the masks and all, it’s really good to see everybody again, physically present. I appreciate everybody being here.”
During her student report, new student representative Abigail Elquist joked she wasn’t used to speaking in front of actual people, only over Zoom.
The meeting started out with some uplifting news, something Board Member Sarah Young said she was “pleasantly surprised” to hear.
First Kay Mack, Beltrami County Administrator, informed the board that Beltrami County had allocated $150 per enrolled student from the CARES money received by the county. This amounts to $760,000.
Mack clarified that CARES Act funding has to pass three criteria: it must be used for something COVID-19 related, not be in the budget, and the cost had to occur between March 1 and Nov. 30. She suggested this could mean technology needs, PPE, cleaning or additional busing.
“We know better than almost any other entity, other than you, how important education is,” Mack said. “I can only imagine the logistical issues you’ve had to face. I don’t know how you’re doing this, my hat goes off to you.”
Horace May Principal Kathy Van Wert and teacher Kate Pearson presented on the newly installed Horace May Diversity Trail mural, which has information in English and Ojibwe informing students about biodiversity and animal life cycles.
After the positive news, came some a little less than positive.
Superintendent Lutz spoke about the decrease in enrollment shown by the district so far this year, and broke down where the decreases can be attributed.
Enrollment is a driving force in any district’s funding formula, which is already an issue in Bemidji. He called this issue, “enrollment melt.”
“Some students are falling through the cracks,” Lutz said, mentioning that this is not just a Bemidji problem, but something happening all over the state as families opt for distance learning, hybrid or something else entirely.
The district had around 5,100 students enrolled this spring. Lutz projected that the enrollment could be as high as 5,600 this year, but at the start of the year, enrollment was around 4,300, with 500 of those students being added in the past week, he said.
Some students have left to attend online charter schools or online post-secondary education, some have gone back to their home districts or are being homeschooled, but between 40 and 60 students are still unaccounted for, Lutz explained.
This may change, he said, adding that some families were coming in to register just this week.
The board also wondered about changing the district’s current learning model -- in-person for elementary, hybrid for middle and secondary. Lutz said while the area’s current numbers allow for this, they are on the rise, and cautioned against making any decisions until the numbers seem sustainable.
He suggested waiting at least two weeks after last Friday’s presidential rally, in case that event causes a spike in the area. “We should take our time in making a model change,” he said.
District nurse Emily Helm also spoke to the board about the decision tree used to determine whether someone was a close contact of a COVID-19 case while at school, what that might look like, and how long certain students and staff would need to stay home in each case.
Superintendent Lutz also gave a brief update on what he described as “crunch time” for the referendum vote. “We’re in high gear right now,” he said, adding that an information website, www.bemidjibold.com is now live.