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EDUCATION: School Board approves initial staffing cuts to deal with shortfall

BEMIDJI -- Factoring in the expenses it nixed and the additions it approved, the Bemidji Area Schools board made an overall cut of about $600,000 to its general fund budget for the upcoming year at its meeting Monday night, coming at the cost of a handful of staff positions.

The cut School Board members approved Monday was one of the first attempts to deal with a $1.3 million deficit the district has projected for the coming year due to rising costs. The board will look to cut another $300,000 in non-licensed staff, or in other areas, as well as $400,000 the district has yet to identify.

“The recommended reductions are the result of a budgetary shortfall that’s projected, licensure issues, shifting enrollments in certain areas of the district and anticipated grant changes,” said Jordan Hickman, the district’s director of human resources.

In total, the board approved more than $1.7 million in expense cuts. The board accepted the resignations of nine teachers, as well as two paraprofessionals. It also approved two requests for extended leave and one request from a teacher to be released from a contract. While those staff changes may have been voluntary, the board also terminated the contracts of 16 Tier 1 and probationary educators.

Stacy Ferrin, a parent to two students in the district, spoke about the proposed cuts before the board members took any action.

“I look at these proposed cuts through the lens of a parent, and I honestly cringe at what this could mean,” Ferrin said. “I am in no way trying to suggest that budgetary solutions are simple, and that the process of problem solving is effortless, but we are in the business of helping kids. When we ask for staff to bear $900,000 of this $1.3 million burden, we are asking too much.”

While the changes are due to multiple factors, Hickman said one of the reasons for the projected shortfall is the opening of a new charter school, which could result in a lower enrollment at the public school system.

Hickman also noted the shortfall is just a projection. If enrollment is higher than what originally projected -- resulting in a higher budget -- they could make changes later on.  

Some of those staff cuts may not be permanent, either. Aside from the cuts, the board members also approved $1.65 million in staff additions, representing a shift in some areas of the district. Hickman pointed out that some of the staff members that were cut could potentially be rehired to fill roles that were added. Many of the terminations, he said, were due to an expiration of licenses or by special permission.

“My goal would be to rehire, or have as many of these rehired as we can, before the end of this school year so that we don’t lose them to other districts and we continue to maintain continuity,” Hickman said.  

The district will specifically see the $600,000 cut approved Monday in its general fund. However, some of the positions that were either cut or approved Monday are funded through sources unrelated to the general fund, such as grants.

Because of that, the net savings to the school district is more modest. The difference between the $1.73 million in expense cuts and the $1.649 million in additions resulted in the overall savings of about $84,000.  

Several of the board members spoke about the reductions during the meeting. Some noted the cuts could have been larger. Boardmember Ann Long Voelkner advised those in attendance to call their state representatives to advocate for education, especially in regard to special education.

“I would please ask people to hold our elected officials accountable for funding a quality education across the state,” Long Voelkner said.

Jordan Shearer

Jordan Shearer covers crime and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. A Rochester native and Bemidji State grad, he previously spent several years in western Nebraska writing for the Keith County News. Follow him on Twitter @Jmanassa

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