BEMIDJI -- Monday night’s Bemidji Area Schools board meeting drew more attention from the community both in-person and on social media than any meeting in the past few months.
Many students, teachers and community members voiced their opinions over a proposed measure to shift the four-period day at Bemidji High School to a six-period schedule, which would serve as a potential cost-saving measure after the district’s failed operating referendum. The measure was projected to save the district $640,000.
Three people spoke directly to the board on Jan. 25 and a few dozen stood outside in support before the meeting and participated in prior listening sessions. The board room itself was limited to 21 persons due to COVID-19 precautions, which after the board and cabinet members, left room for only five community visitors.
The board ultimately decided not to take any action on the scheduling matter, removing the action item from the agenda at the beginning of the meeting. In an attempt to ease some student fears, Superintendent Tim Lutz had disseminated a message Monday afternoon that the board would not make any official cuts that evening.
“Tonight we will be talking about the high school four-period block schedule, we will not be making a decision this evening,” Board Chair Ann Long Voelkner said. The board heard financial updates detailing the grim budget situation in which the district finds itself.
The board also officially welcomed its newest member, Gabriel Warren, who was sworn in, along with incumbents Long Voelkner and Jeff Haack at the top of the meeting.
Warren is a professor of business administration at Bemidji State University and won his seat, vacated by John Gonzalez, in November.
Community reactions over block schedule
Two high school students delivered formal remarks to the board, pleading with administrators to consider alternative cost-saving measures and spare the block schedule.
BHS sophomores Alya Nimis-Ibrahim and Lily Thomas both read statements to the board, as did parent Daniel Larson, who published a few videos on social media in recent days about the proposal.
Nimis-Ibrahim gave the board a copy of the petition she started against the measure. In its four days online, the petition has garnered more than 2,200 signatures. The Bemidji High School has around 1,500 students.
Nimis-Ibrahim told the Pioneer she first learned of the proposed cost-saving measure from a teacher in one of her classes. She told the class she was thinking of starting a petition and her classmates were supportive. She was shocked when it reached thousands of people.
Thomas said, “Four-period block scheduling is what has made Bemidji High School such a superior place for education, so I’d like the district to explore all other options before taking away two credits.”
Prior to the meeting, BHS senior Kenneth Anttila spoke to the Pioneer and said he believes the four-period day is the core of the school. Anttila wrote a poem advocating for the four-period day with the final stanza reading, “So, let us keep the four-period school day, and not lead our school to decay. Let us think hard about difficult matters, yet not reduce our school to shatters.”
Abigail Elquist -- one of the two student representatives on the board -- also used her time during the student reports to express her displeasure with the proposed solution. She mentioned that students may feel jaded as the budget crisis is a result of the failed referendum, which the majority of high school students were not eligible to vote for despite being the most affected by the decision.
Elquist said the concerns she heard when speaking with teachers and students included issues such as there would be too much for student’s to focus on per day, students wouldn’t be able to take as many credits per year, many students may not be able to take art or music classes and lack of schedule flexibility.
“I know there isn’t going to be a perfect solution for this, but I don’t think a six-period day is going to be the best one,” Elquist said. “I hope that we can look at many different possible options that might be better for everyone involved.”
Joel Roberts, student representative, shared similar thoughts on the matter and also proposed some potential solutions.
“I am not a budget expert,” he prefaced his remarks. “I understand what’s at stake, I know we can’t go into debt, but we’ve been having a lot of discussions. These are the concerns of the students and I see this as my responsibility to bring it to you guys.”
Roberts said one of his math teachers broke down the numbers with him and proposed cutting six, seven or eight teachers -- which is approximately what the four-period shift would have done -- but keeping the four-period day, which would essentially increase class sizes.
The growing budget gap
Lutz explained to the board how the district got into this predicament and why the referendum was pursued in the first place.
“The path that brought us here wasn’t irresponsible spending,” he said. “The remedy is to cut and cut and cut. That’s how we got here today.”
In a nod to his pre-referendum presentations, he gave a PowerPoint presentation titled, “Securing our financial future.”
He said the per-pupil formula of state funding has not kept up with inflation over the past 14 years.
“For the last 14 years, we have been going steadily backwards,” he said. “We are worse off than we were in 2007. That puts us in a real tough situation.”
“We have seen this coming,” Business Director Krisi Fenner said, noting that the district has been cutting into its fund balance for the past three years, hence the proposal of the referendum, pre-pandemic. “The pandemic hit and we lost 280 students, which equates to 2.8 million dollars in revenue. This has created a perfect storm, which has accelerated us to need to create large reductions to avoid statutory operating debt. That’s how we got here.”
The district's 280 student enrollment loss since the pandemic began, will also negatively affect the district’s per-pupil funding, unless the state passes hold harmless legislation, which would fund districts at last year’s enrollment numbers.
“We don’t know at this point if they will be back,” Fenner said of the students. “But we are hopeful they will come back.”
Board members also inquired about proposing another referendum vote. Fenner said there are possible dates a special election could be held in May, August or November, but also explained that hosting an election not in conjunction with the county would result in much higher costs.
“All of those responsibilities would fall on us,” Fenner said. “I believe it is cumbersome and expensive, but it has been done in the past.”
If the board were to pursue another operating referendum, and it were to pass, the funds wouldn’t be accessible to the district until the 2022-23 school year.
“We would still need to make heavy reductions to avoid that negative balance in the 2021-22 school year,” Fenner said.
Lutz seemingly pushed back on community members sentiments that they didn’t know what was at stake when voting for the referendum -- something that has been expressed over social media for the last few days -- by showing a presentation slide from his pre-referendum presentation with the title “What if the operating levy doesn’t pass?”
He went down the potential answers one by one, settling on cutting costs as one of the only viable solutions.
“The mandate from our community is to look at other options,” Lutz said.
He listed potential areas for reductions as: cutting activities, closing a school or schools, increasing class sizes, reconstructing grade structures, reducing course offerings, reducing student supports, salary freezes, increasing activity fees, reductions in teaching and non-certified staff, reductions in administration staff, delaying the purchases of buses and delaying capital projects.
“Whatever we come up with, we’re not going to like,” said Board Member Sarah Young.
Typical of the first meeting of the year, the agenda was heavy. The board also heard an update from the proposed permanent online learning option team, a COVID-19 status update, conducted annual board business and heard a financial audit and projection.
As part of regular January board meetings the board set new officers. Board member Long Voelkner will now serve as chairman, Carol Johnson will serve as vice-chair, Sarah Young as clerk and Jeff Lind as treasurer.
COVID-19 was not the star of the show, a change from recent months. Lutz did share optimistic numbers -- the county rolling averages were stagnant or declining, and there were no active cases of Bemidji Area Schools students. Two staff members currently have COVID-19.
“We’ve rounded the corner from the holiday expected spike,” Lutz said. “That is encouraging.”
Lutz said there were 47 vaccines reserved for ISD 31 staff in Thief River Falls as part of a vaccine distribution pilot project, and that 32 additional vaccines that might have otherwise gone to waste locally have also been reserved for ISD 31 staff members. Lutz said the staff members who were offered the vaccines first were those who are at higher risk due to age or self-reported underlying health issues.
He said that with the addition of district nurses and nurse paraprofessionals who have already been vaccinated, that around 10% of the district’s staff will have been vaccinated within the next couple of weeks.
The middle and high school students will be returning to school for hybrid learning beginning in February. The middle school students will return Feb. 1, students in grades 9-11 will return Feb. 4, and seniors will return Feb. 16, due to a state mandate which only allows schools to bring back students three grades at a time.
The board also heard an update from the team that’s been pursuing a permanent online learning option. Colleen Cardenuto, Kyle McMartin, Drew Hildenbrand and Jason Stanoch first brought the idea to the board in the December meeting, when the board opted not to take action on the idea, but instead asked the team to press on and report back.
McMartin, assistant principal at Bemidji Middle School, presented the group’s findings from the last month.
He said the program will need to determine whether it will be supplemental -- offering students one or two online courses per semester, comprehensives -- students take all of their courses online for the year -- or both. McMartin said the funding methods differ based on the program type, but that the group plans to conduct surveys within the next month to gauge student need and interest.
“We are trying to do this without spending further dollars,” McMartin said. “We’re trying to retain students who may leave.”
The full meeting can be viewed on the Bemidji Area School's YouTube channel.