BEMIDJI -- Closing Central Elementary School, eliminating JROTC, redistributing grade levels across district facilities, pay freezes and shutting down the early childhood education building.

These were just a handful of the ideas brought to the table for examination during the Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education work session Thursday night. The board met for a special session to explore cost-saving options -- it did not take any action.

Recommended cuts

The board and the cabinet sat topsy turvy during the meeting, giving cabinet members microphone access to answer the many questions that came their way.

At the top of the meeting, the district’s Business Director, Krisi Fenner, laid out the budget projections for the next two years. Currently, thanks to surprise funding from the federal government that came along with the second round of stimulus checks, the unrestricted fund balance will sit at $1.6 million at the end of 2021.

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However, in 2022, it will drop to -$4.02 million without that one-time aid and taking into account the expected drop in enrollment and drop in compensatory revenue from free and reduced lunch numbers.

Lutz laid out the situation -- telling the board that $5.6 million needed to be cut from the budget, in order to make up for the potential shortfall, and retain the initial $1.6 in the unrestricted fund balance for other needs that may arise.

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He presented the board with a list of recommended cuts, as well as their projected savings:

  • Closing Central Elementary School, which is located at 815 Beltrami Ave, is one option, which administration suggests would save $465,000 and eliminate 6.5 full-time equivalent positions. Many of the staff members would follow students to other district buildings.

  • Instituting a “patch” year for Bemidji High School, which would not eliminate the block schedule, but eliminate some staff positions. This would likely reduce the number of electives available and increase class sizes. This “patch” year would give time to analyze alternative schedules. This is projected to save $680,000.

  • Moving early childhood programs into elementary school buildings, which would eliminate some early childhood staff positions. This is projected to save $80,000.

  • Closing the community education building and moving those services elsewhere. This is projected to save $20,000 in overhead costs.

  • Vacating the property housing the Alternative Education Center, this is a leased building through a levy with a projected savings of $15,000.

  • Reducing supplies, equipment and classroom budgets by 10%, with a projected savings of $40,000.

  • Cutting the accelerated reader testing program, which is projected to save $23,000.

  • Examine where special education paraprofessionals could be reduced based on the number and needs of IEPs (individualized education plans) in the coming year.

The board also heard about adjusting district-wide classroom sections based on enrollments, delaying the hiring of an audio-visual technician position, attrition, cutting Students First programming, restructuring Oshki, shift around Title IV staff by paying for their services through a different fund stream, and a one-time staff development requirement transfer.

If all of these cuts were made, the district would still be left with $1.46 million left to cut to achieve their budget goal, assuming enrollment stayed constant and no state or federal aid came to the rescue.

Other areas to cut

Even if every one of the recommended cuts were made, the district still has a problem on their hands. The board also considered some additional areas cuts could be made, that have not yet been fully explored.

The most significant of these cuts would be a re-allocation of grade levels throughout the district, which would close three schools -- J.W. Smith Elementary, Central Elementary and Solway Elementary. It would shift the high school to house grades 8-12, the middle school to grades 5-7, and the remaining elementary schools would house pre-kindergarten through fourth grade. The savings here would come from reduced secretarial and custodial staff, transportation costs, reduced principal costs and savings from fewer paraprofessionals.

“It would be a major game-changer in terms of savings,” Lutz said. “We don’t yet have an estimated amount. That is a consideration, and that would significantly provide savings in terms of dollars because of the ability to reduce costs.”

Below are other areas the board was asked to consider Thursday night:

  • Restructuring the Bemidji High School schedule

  • Eliminating the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC) program, with an estimated savings of $165,000.

  • Reducing Career Academies staff with an estimated savings of $40,000.

  • Reducing transportation support staffing -- the savings for this have not yet been estimated.

  • Reducing custodial costs through building closures.

  • Shifting Bemidji Middle School extracurricular offerings to a community education model with an estimated savings of $300,000. Board members also questioned the potential for middle school students to participate in high school programs, rather than cutting an entire activity or sport, perhaps reducing each sports season by a game or two to save costs. “Those are very real savings we can look at,” Lutz said.

  • Cutting fifth-grade orchestra for a projected savings of $10,000.

  • Negotiating a staff pay freeze for the 2021-22 school year with an estimated savings of $1 million.

  • Cutting an elementary media specialist position.

  • Delaying replacing technology devices.

  • Reducing school board member salaries.

The timeline on these decisions will vary depending on the amount of time needed to implement them, for example, a major overhaul of the school grade level structures would take much more time than reducing the number of basketball games played in a season.

Additional options

Board members inquired about other options besides cuts -- exploring ways to increase revenue -- increasing fees for activities, lunch fees or facility use fees.

“Many of these revenue increases will not be significant, but again, everything we do to assist with revenue may help us with cuts,” Lutz said.

The board also discussed meeting with homeschool families and families who open enroll outside of the district to find out the “why” behind their decision and see if any of those students could be drawn back to the district.

“We’re getting to the point now where we have a lot of competition, but that’s a very time-consuming process,” Lutz said of the potential to work on marketing the school district better. “We are exploring ways that we can do that with the limited amount of time and resources at our disposal, but that is an important way to gain more revenue -- to attract and retain more students.”

The consensus seemed to be to plan for the worst, while hoping for the best. There are many unknowns still at play. When will students be able to fully return? Will the 280 students who chose not to enroll in the district this year come back? Will the district be required to provide a distance learning option next fall?

“We want to prepare for the worst, but if we end up having 200 of the 280 students return, and our financial situation isn’t quite as bad, are we making cuts deeper than we need to on the front end?” School Board member Jeff Lind asked. “Is there time in there for us to work?”

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Director of Human Resources Jordan Hickman tried to answer Lind’s question by talking about enrollment projections and explaining that it is easier to start on the more conservative end. Licensed staff contracts mean that teachers can be added throughout the year, but not taken away, meaning that it is better to start with a smaller projection.

“If we do see some of those 280 students return, if we see some of our kindergarten registration in excess of what we projected, we can add sections back, and we would have the revenue to support those additional sections because of the additional students,” Hickman said.

The board again asked to explore holding a second referendum vote. Fenner said this could be possible, but that since the next general election would not be until November of 2022, the district would be responsible for the costs of holding another election if a special election was chosen.

Fenner said she is speaking with the county to learn more about this option.

“This is a time of crisis.” Board Chair Ann Long Voelkner said. “It’s going to be courageous decisions that we’re going to have to make. There’s going to be a lot of stuff going on that we do not want to support. Find the bottle next to the vitamins that say ‘courage’ and start taking those pills.”

The board did not make any decisions Thursday night, more action will likely be taken during the next board meeting set for 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 22.

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