BEMIDJI -- Tough choices are on the horizon.
On Monday, Feb. 22, the Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education will convene for its February meeting and make decisions to address the district’s budget crisis.
On the agenda is a measure to close Central Elementary, the Paul Bunyan Early Childhood Center and the Community Education office building.
If the measure passes, Central Elementary students will be divided into other district elementary schools, and the early childhood education programs and community education staff will be housed in other district buildings.
Superintendent Tim Lutz laid out his recommendations in a recent letter to the school board.
“Whereas Central Elementary School is the district’s oldest school, and enrollment is below 100 students, I recommend altering the use of the school from its current status as a K-3 elementary school and moving its students to other elementary schools,” Lutz wrote.
“To further balance and reconcile the budget, I recommend moving the preschool classes currently located at the Paul Bunyan Early Learning Center to some of the district’s K-3 neighborhood schools where these early learning students will be able to develop a connection through third grade.”
“Finally, to reduce costs and increase savings through improved efficiencies, I recommend vacating the current ISD 31 Community Education office building and moving all staff to other district locations,” he added. “This will allow the district to lease or sell the existing Community Education building.”
If passed, this motion will realign the use of district facilities, shift where some programs are located, and redistrict attendance boundaries for Central Elementary students to attend school in other neighborhood schools.
In a special board meeting on Feb. 4, school board members were briefed on this possibility. During this 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.
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.
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 the 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.
During the upcoming Monday meeting, the board will also hear an update on the potential of holding a second referendum vote, as well as a budget projection update.
In the Central Elementary petition, petition creator Erin Shaw states, “Closing our elementary schools is not the right choice to make. Class sizes will increase, larger classes with (fewer) resources (make) it harder on the teachers, not to mention all those lost jobs,” Shaw wrote. “The increase in bussing the students to other schools and to after school activities will be an added expense and hardship on students and the school district. There has to be a better solution for the financial issues facing the district than to close our elementary schools.”
In the petition to save the Paul Bunyan Center, Co-Chair of the Parent Advisory Committee to ECFE/ESR Ruth Baker writes, “The loss of the Paul Bunyan Center would be a devastating blow to this community. It houses the only community education center for families with young children in this area. The proposition to decentralize these resources would lead to developmentally inappropriate and potentially unsafe conditions for these young learners.”
“By closing the Paul Bunyan Center, a community of early childhood educators and families would be broken apart, permanently losing access to critical shared resources as well as opportunities for collaboration and support,” she continued. “Finally, the shuttering of the Paul Bunyan Center will likely drive families away from the district, causing further and lasting negative impacts to annual district revenue.”
As of noon on Friday, the Paul Bunyan Center petition had more than 1,100 signatures and the Central Elementary petition had around 400.
Neither of these petitions have yet identified other areas for potential cuts or cost-saving measures.
In January, students, parents and faculty expressed similar concerns regarding the potential shift from a block schedule at Bemidji High School. Due to this outcry, the board ultimately agreed to push this potential change back a year and explore other options.
The meeting will take place at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 22, in the district board room. Due to COVID-19 regulations, a limited number of attendees will be allowed in the building, but the meeting can be watched live on the district’s YouTube channel.