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Board member replacement, finances highlighted at Bemidji school board meeting

Monday’s Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education meeting provided a collection of discussion items ranging from the district’s 2021 fiscal year financial audit to a board member replacement process along with the usual fare of a COVID update and mitigation strategies.

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BEMIDJI – Monday’s Bemidji school board meeting provided a collection of discussion items ranging from the district’s 2021 fiscal year financial audit to a board member replacement process, along with the usual fare of a COVID update and mitigation strategies.

Certified Public Accountant Jon Roscoe, from Miller McDonald Inc. of Bemidji, along with District Business Director Krisi Fenner presented the district’s financial audit.

Both reported the district general fund’s $74.8 million in revenue for the past fiscal year compared to 2019-2020’s $70.6 million. The three rounds of COVID-19 relief ESSER funding, totaling roughly $18 million that must be used by 2024, was credited as the main reason for the district’s increased revenue.

Regarding expenditures, $71 million for this past year was a decrease from 2019-2020’s $72 million. Fenner explained the decrease was due to payroll cost savings achieved through attrition and temporary hiring freeze, as well as the intentional postponement of curriculum and school bus purchasing cycles to offset the budget deficit.

This leaves the district with a $3.8 million surplus compared to the prior year’s $1.3 million deficit.

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Fenner emphasized the unassigned, assigned and committed balances within the general fund balance totaling $3.4 million, funds that are either currently available for educational spending, designated at a management level to track certain programs, or funds that are set aside for specific purposes following board action.

“This is a good position to be in compared to the discussions we were having and projections we were seeing last year at this time,” Fenner said. “It’s really important that we maintain this momentum, continue to increase our fund balance, and then work to maintain it through a balanced budget.”

Following more detailed breakdowns of the food service, community service, construction and debt service funds, Fenner shared some final takeaways.

“The district must continue to make expenditure reductions as well as look for ways to increase revenue,” she shared. “We will continue to lobby state legislators for increased funding especially in the mandated, but underfunded areas of special education and transportation.”

Replacing Jeff Haack

The board discussed various strategies for filling the vacant sixth spot left open by former board member Jeff Haack following his Nov. 15 resignation.

Superintendent Tim Lutz detailed a couple of options, including another special election, simply appointing a person to the board or accepting public applications before appointment.

With a certain level of fatigue following the Nov. 2 referendum special election , Lutz mentioned the cost and time consumption of this option would make it the least ideal.

“(A special election) is time-consuming and expensive if it’s held separately, of course, from a state or national election,” Lutz said.

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Fenner mentioned that the next chance at a special election would come in February, much too soon for board action, and would be the absolute earliest the new board member would join.

The board seemed to be in agreement with making applications available that, if necessary, could be reduced down to a pool of four to five candidates for board approval.

Haack was reelected to the board during the General Election in November 2020 , making next fall the halfway mark of his four-year term. With his vacancy, the replacement board member would take the sixth spot temporarily until November when the next national election takes place.

Board member Jeff Lind asked about consequences regarding leaving the spot open until next November for the sake of more community involvement in the process.

“I would certainly prefer to have the community pick the board member rather than us,” Lind mentioned.

Lutz relayed a statute from the Minnesota School Boards Association stating that any vacancy must be filled within a reasonable timeline. He added, “A board of five is perfectly capable of running meetings as sometimes odd numbers are helpful. But, according to statute, a duly elected seat that’s vacant has to be filled.”

Board chair Ann Long Voelkner read off a Minnesota State statute regarding the qualifications of a potential board member including being at least 21 years old, an eligible voter, a district resident for at least 30 days prior to election or appointment and may not be a convicted sex offender.

Long Voelkner also referenced conflicts of interest that must be resolved prior to being seated on the board.

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The board reached a consensus that the district personnel committee would draft an application along with more specific guidelines for the evaluation and selection of candidates. This committee is set to provide an update at the January board meeting.

Different direction

Lutz’s standard COVID update provided encouraging news regarding district numbers for cases and quarantines.

“I’m very pleased to report that during last week, the number of staff who were positive was zero,” Lutz said. “The number of quarantines (due to close contact outside of school) of staff was zero. Number of staff quarantined due to having symptoms or household members having symptoms was two. The number of staff who were in close contact at school, zero.”

Student numbers were a bit higher than staff, though lower than a couple of months ago. There were 21 positive student cases with 43 students needing to quarantine for being close contacts in school, outside of school or exhibiting symptoms. Only one close contact took place in school.

Lutz also noted student vaccination rates within the district, with 45% of students ages 12 to 18 having received their first dose of the vaccine while 42% are fully vaccinated.

A total of 21% of students ages 5-11 have received their first shot with 12% being fully vaccinated.

Lutz was also encouraged by a 315 student-days lost statistic that’s down by a third compared to a couple of months ago. Despite this, he shared some concerns regarding COVID fatigue.

“We are becoming more and more tired of COVID and I understand that,” Lutz said. “We would like to be done with COVID, but unfortunately, COVID is not done with us.”

Referencing the delta and omicron variants, Lutz mentioned several schools that are transitioning to remote learning or extending the holiday break. He doesn’t foresee the district making these changes due to masking and other mitigation strategies that have been in place since the beginning of the school year .

Following the holiday break, he hopes that a potential shift from a masking mandate into a recommendation will be dictated by increased vaccination rates.

“We can take a look at how many students and staff are vaccinated and using that metric, whether or not there will be a day (when masks are no longer mandated),” Lutz said. “Until then, we will continue what we’re doing.”

Other agenda items

The board provided a brief update on the Dec. 15 special work session where they discussed potential scheduling changes to the high school’s four-period block schedule.

BHS Principal Jason Stanoch is set to speak at the January board meeting regarding the budgetary effects and other considerations that may arise from changing the school’s schedule to a five or six-period day.

The board also passed a number of resolutions. One that’s been 20 years in the making included an agreement between the Bemidji Community Arena and Bemidji Youth Hockey Association to provide a united culture of hockey for students.

This agreement includes a land lease, use and purchase agreement allowing the sale of the Nymore Arena to the BCA for $1 and extends agreements between these organizations and BHS to continue using various facilities.

District Human Resources Director Jordan Hickman requested that an additional social worker and home-based teacher be approved. The approximate cost is $160,000 to add these positions, funding for which will be sourced from ESSER funds.

Being the final meeting of 2021, the board left off with holiday well-wishes and safe travels.

Board member Carol Johnson shared an excerpt from the musical “Into the Woods” during Once Around the Table to sum up this past year.

“‘Careful the things you say, because children will listen. Careful the things you do, children will see and learn. Children may not always obey, but children will listen. Children will look to you for which way to turn.’ Happy new year, everyone.”

The full meeting can be viewed on the Bemidji Area Schools YouTube channel .

The next regular board meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 24, in the district board room.

Daltyn Lofstrom is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer focusing on education and community stories.
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