BEMIDJI -- The Bemidji Area School's Board of Education has voted to proceed with plans to shutter Central Elementary, the Paul Bunyan Center and the Community Education building as a cost-saving measure for the district.

The tough decision was reached unanimously after deliberation by the board during its meeting on Monday.

The vote taken Monday evening was to confirm board support to explore the issue, which means the matter will remain on the agenda for the March 15 school board meeting, along with a final vote, to allow more time for public comment. The board needs to fill a projected $5.6 million budget deficit the district is facing following enrollment loss due to COVID-19 and November’s failed operating referendum.

“This motion at this time allows for us to create thoughtful and adaptive change over the course of the next few weeks. Change is never final, cast in concrete,” Board Chair Ann Long Voelkner said.

She clarified this means Central Elementary, Paul Bunyan Center and the Community Education building will almost certainly still close, but the specifics about how these changes will look may be affected by community input.

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The board also heard updates on bringing middle and high school students back into their classrooms, fully in person, which Superintendent Tim Lutz said he hopes will happen within the next few weeks.

Monday, Feb 22. marked the 100th day of the school year, and the first day back in school for seniors in group “A Week” at BHS under the hybrid model. Middle and high school students have not been under a fully in-person model since last March.

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The fate of Central

Around an hour into the meeting, the board members reached the agenda item on everyone’s minds -- a measure to close Central Elementary, the Paul Bunyan Early Childhood Center and the Community Education office building.

Though the board did need to make a decision, Superintendent Lutz clarified while the board will have to vote on the motion -- the board wouldn’t officially vote to close the school.

“The final decision will be made in our March board meeting after the public has been given the opportunity to provide comment,” Lutz said.

Board member Jeff Lind asked how much money each of these moves will save.

Lutz said closing Central Elementary would save the district an estimated $460,000 to 465,000.

Central Elementary School as seen from Beltrami Avenue on Feb. 23. The Bemidji Area School Board voted to proceed with plans to shutter Central Elementary, the Paul Bunyan Center and the Community Education building as a cost-saving measure for the district during a meeting Monday night. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Central Elementary School as seen from Beltrami Avenue on Feb. 23. The Bemidji Area School Board voted to proceed with plans to shutter Central Elementary, the Paul Bunyan Center and the Community Education building as a cost-saving measure for the district during a meeting Monday night. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Closing the Paul Bunyan Center would retain $80,000 by cutting two full-time equivalent positions from the building, followed by an additional $78,000 to $80,000 in foodservice costs.

The decision to close Central Elementary, the district’s oldest school, was not one the board took lightly. The board members shared stories about the legacy of Central, even mentioning when it burned down and was rebuilt after a fire in 1958.

“This is a very difficult thing to do with a historic building, with a great legacy, and a strong overall staff,” Lutz said. “None of the decisions we’ve been talking about since the last board meeting are ones we’d like to make. We are faced with some very, very grave budget decisions we have to make.”

Board member Jeff Haack said while closing a school is never an easy decision, with such a sizable enrollment drop, a change would need to happen somewhere.

“With that many seats empty, a building has to be empty, and if not Central, it would be another building,” Haack added.

Lutz addressed some of the concerns raised about the impending closure -- one of them being that since Central Elementary is a neighborhood school, some students who rely on the proximity of the school to their homes may be negatively affected. Lutz suggested many students who attend Central Elementary may be just as close in distance to J.W. Smith Elementary.

He added there are no current plans to get rid of or demolish the Central Elementary School, and expressed he hopes the building can be repurposed as a community center of sorts, with the partnership of other community organizations.

“We want it to continue to be something that our district can provide, along with other organizations that support families,” Lutz said.

Board member Jeff Lind said he met with Central Elementary faculty and community members about their opposition to the closure of the school during a listening session ahead of the board meeting.

Many expressed concerns about equity issues, as Central Elementary is comprised of a large number of low-income families, Native American families, and families who may face transportation issues in the wake of the school’s closure.

“It made tonight’s decision even more difficult, because we have really, really caring individuals in our schools,” Lind said.

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Paul Bunyan Center and younger learners

Closing the Paul Bunyan Center will shift the district’s youngest pupils to elementary schools around the area.

Board members sought to find some positives in this weighty decision.

“It is a difficult decision and I know everybody loves the Paul Bunyan Center, but there are some benefits that we can maybe see in it,” Board member Sarah Young said.

Lutz highlighted some potential positives -- some families may now have several children in the same building; making drop-offs easier. Preschool students may also face an easier transition to kindergarten, as they will be used to the staff and building facilities.

“Having an early learning center is not a necessity,” Lutz said, noting that many districts in the state of Minnesota have preschool students in elementary schools without issue.

Lutz said he reached out to the Minnesota Department of Education, who said there is not a difference in overall outcome for students.

He also mentioned he’d heard concerns from some community members that the elementary school buildings would not be equipped for the influx of younger learners.

The Paul Bunyan Center as seen from Gillett Drive on Feb. 23. The Bemidji Area School Board voted to proceed with plans to shutter Central Elementary, the Paul Bunyan Center and the Community Education building as a cost-saving measure for the district during a meeting Monday night. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
The Paul Bunyan Center as seen from Gillett Drive on Feb. 23. The Bemidji Area School Board voted to proceed with plans to shutter Central Elementary, the Paul Bunyan Center and the Community Education building as a cost-saving measure for the district during a meeting Monday night. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

“We will work with the early learning staff to make sure that we are creating an environment appropriate for our youngest learners,” he said. “I am confident that our wonderful staff at Paul Bunyan will continue to do a great job wherever they may be.”

Lutz said the district will incur some costs to improve elementary schools for the needs of preschool students, such as playground or restroom accommodations.

“We don’t anticipate that this (cost) will be too terribly high,” Lutz said.

The district is planning on keeping Early Childhood Family Education programs at the Paul Bunyan Center, Lutz said, as the program is for very young children, and it would not make sense to move them to the elementary buildings. The community education staff will also be housed in the Paul Bunyan Center, so the current Community Education Building can be leased or sold.

Board member Gabriel Warren asked how the realignment would affect transportation costs. Lutz said the transportation coordinator suggested the switch may actually save money, as some students will be bussed shorter distances than before.

“The motion tonight will give us the go-ahead to begin exploring that with more detail,” Lutz said.

Opposition to closure

Several teachers attended the meeting, not to share their thoughts, but just to listen in on the meeting. 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.

Over the past week, petitions have been circulating social media to “Keep Central Elementary School Open” and “Save Paul Bunyan Early Childhood Center.”

In the Central Elementary petition, its 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.”

During Monday’s meeting board member Carol Johnson refuted claims by some community members that these decisions were made without informing the public. She encouraged community members to tune into their local media and pay attention to school issues.

“Our information is out there. Too often I get hit with somebody saying, ‘I didn’t know anything about it,’ and I have to just say, we are out there. We are very transparent,” she said. “Our message is on all of the radio stations, it’s on Lakeland Public Television, it’s in the Pioneer, it’s on our website. Please have conversations with all of us. Don’t hesitate to contact any of us.”

The board members also thanked the public for providing input via email and encouraged them to continue doing so.

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Other ways out of the hole

The board is still exploring ways to generate revenue in the face of the budget gap.

Business Director Krisi Fenner brought information to the board regarding the potential of holding a special election to pursue another referendum vote.

Fenner said the cost of holding an election would cost around $50,000.

“I really feel we need to backtrack a bit and look at what we do know, and what we need to understand better,” Fenner said. “We know that this may have created some momentum and awareness, at the same time, we heard a resounding ‘no’ in November.”

She recommended taking the time to survey the community, to find out what was wrong with the last referendum and identify a tax tolerance from the community.

Another method of potential revenue generation in the works is a proposal for a permanent online school option. During Monday’s meeting, Bemidji Middle School Assistant Principal Kyle McMartin gave a timeline update on the project. He said the team recently sent a survey out to 693 students in grades 5-11 who are currently distance learning full time. A total of 179 students took the survey.

School Board Member Jeff Lind and Board Chair Ann Long Voelkner listen during public comment in a meeting on Monday, Feb. 22 in the district board room in downtown Bemidji. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
School Board Member Jeff Lind and Board Chair Ann Long Voelkner listen during public comment in a meeting on Monday, Feb. 22 in the district board room in downtown Bemidji. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Of those 179, 108 students said they would be interested in the future online learning program.

The online learning program would potentially generate revenue in a few ways: preventing current students who want to learn online from leaving, draw back students who left this year for homeschooling or online learning programs elsewhere, and attract students from other districts to open enroll in ISD 31.

Bringing students back to school

While placed on the back burner due to budget issues, the district had some good news to share on the COVID-19 front.

“As of late, numbers are holding steady and dropping,” Lutz said. “We still do have some, but it is not nearly as high or alarming.”

Gov. Tim Walz recently laid out an objective for schools to bring back students by March 8, along with further restrictions to do so safely.

Lutz said there is a meeting lined up on Wednesday with the Northwest Regional Response Team to seek guidance on bringing middle and high school students back for in-person learning.

“I know that students and parents are anxious to get students back to school,” he said. “I hope that within a few weeks, we will be there.”

Lutz said, “Distance Learning Wednesdays” will likely remain in place and that the school district will still be providing a distance learning option.

“What we do has worked and continues to work,” Lutz said. “We are excited to bring our students back to the middle and high school within a few weeks.”

Human Resources Director Jordan Hickman spoke about staff vaccinations, reporting that a majority of staff members who requested to be vaccinated have been.

“We have been working diligently with three different agencies to provide vaccines to our employees,” he said.

Hickman said 480 staff members indicated they were interested in receiving a vaccination, of those, only 30 employees and six substitutes still need a vaccine.

“Greater than half of our staff have received a vaccination,” Hickman said. “I’m very happy to say that we’re close to giving everyone an opportunity to have their vaccination if they wanted one.”

Monday’s full meeting can be viewed on the Bemidji Area School's YouTube channel.