BEMIDJI -- School board members have been phoned, petitions digitally signed, one hundred reasons to love Central Elementary pasted to the school’s front doors, and passionate Facebook comments have been posted by the dozen.

But now the time has come.

Local residents will have an opportunity to formally voice their opinions on the fate of Central Elementary School on Monday.

While a regular school board meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. in the ISD 31 district board room, the board will conduct a public hearing beforehand at 5 p.m. This will provide the public an opportunity to weigh in on the decision -- although in-person attendance will be limited due to COVID-19 regulations.

Ahead of this, community members have been sharing their thoughts, many of opposition, on the internet, over Zoom and across social media.

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The Bemidji school district is facing a budget deficit in the wake of COVID-19, falling enrollment and November’s failed operating referendum. To keep the state from coming in and taking financial matters into its own hands, the district must cut $5.6 million from its budget to fill the projected gap.

A number of cost-saving measures have been recommended to the board, one of which included shutting down Central Elementary, moving the preschool students from the Paul Bunyan Center to neighborhood elementary schools and closing the Community Education building.

As these measures in total are only projected to save the district an estimated $460,000 to $465,000, soon more cuts will likely come down the chute.

Why is the closure being proposed?

During a school board meeting on Feb. 22, board members voted unanimously to proceed with the plan for Central’s closure.

RELATED:Bemidji school board to move forward with closure of Central Elementary, Paul Bunyan Center, Community Education building

In a letter to the board, Superintendent Tim Lutz laid out the reasoning for the measure.

“Due to severe budget projections, ISD 31 must restructure and alter the usage of some of its facilities in order to capture efficiencies of scale. Central Elementary School is one of the district’s oldest schools, and Central Elementary has the smallest enrollment of students in the district,” he wrote. “(In) addition, as one of the oldest structures in the district, Central Elementary will be in need of capital improvements.”

March 15 Meeting Agenda and Board Book by inforumdocs on Scribd

Central Elementary School was built after a fire in 1958 destroyed the original Central Elementary, which was built in 1898 in the same location.

“For the reasons stated, I recommend the closure of Central Elementary School and redistricting attendance boundaries for Central Elementary students to attend schools in other neighborhood PreK-3 elementary schools,” he concluded.

The move is projected to save the district $460,000 to $465,000.

On the agenda, the motion is listed as follows: “(To) approve the closure of Central Elementary School and redistricting attendance boundaries for Central Elementary students to other neighborhood PreK-3 elementary schools.”

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)

Community discussions

On March 6, members of the Bemidji area Project For Change, a local, nonprofit, non-partisan organization, held a community conversation about Central Elementary School over Zoom.

During the session, around 12 community members gathered to discuss potential budget solutions and ways to keep Central Elementary School open.

The attendees bounced around ideas of things like contacting state legislators and the governor’s office for support, and the potential of getting Central designated as a historic building.

The group also largely spoke about equity concerns related to closing the school as Central Elementary has a large makeup of students in racial and socioeconomic minorities.

According to data from the Minnesota Department of Education, as of the 2020-2021 school year, 71% of Central Elementary’s 119 students qualified for free or reduced lunch. A total of 38% of Central’s students are Native American and 11% identified as being more than one race, with a total of 49% of the school being students of color.

Some in the group spoke about their own experience going to Central Elementary as children, and described the atmosphere as a family, adding that they thought the school was more welcoming to students from diverse backgrounds than other district schools. Attendees also mentioned that children in families currently in shelters or transitional housing often attend Central.

MDE data indicates that 10 students at Central were identified as homeless in 2021.

Many in the Project for Change group said they planned to speak during the public hearing on Monday.

Project For Change will host two additional virtual conversations from 5 to 7 p.m. on Friday, March 12 and from 4 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, March 13.

“We will discuss talking with our legislators as the school district is failing to meet the equity standards set by the state,” according to the Facebook event page.

A petition has been circulating on social media over the last few weeks to “Keep Central Elementary School Open.”

The petition, which was posted by Erin Shaw, had garnered 1,170 signatures as of mid-morning on Friday.

RELATED: LETTER TO THE EDITOR: I urge you to work to save Central Elementary

One BSU professor’s budget proposal

Michael Murray, who is a faculty member at Bemidji State and holds a doctorate in economics and statistics, recently sent a letter to the members of the Bemidji school board warning that the closure of Central School could lead to further budgetary issues in the long term. He also sent a copy of his policy brief to the Pioneer, noting that his opinions do not reflect the views of BSU.

In the letter, he explained that the closure of the school could lead more community members to look to charter or private schools, which would only add to the district’s enrollment issue. He provided graphs of the district school’s profitability trends and projected population growth for children in the area over the next few years.

Michael Murray Bemidji School District White Paper by inforumdocs on Scribd

“In my judgment, the decision to close Central Elementary is extremely short-sighted and will not significantly impact the budgetary deficits in the long term. The closing of Central Elementary will make the school district less competitive and open opportunities for charter and private schools to capture even more market share,” Murray wrote. “Central’s closure may provide short-term budgetary relief but will be detrimental in the long term,” he wrote. “I strongly recommend the school board to oppose the motion.”

Using data from the Minnesota Department of Education, Murray highlighted that Central Elementary and J.W. Smith Elementary were the district’s only profitable schools in the 2019 fiscal year. Profits for all district elementary schools notably dropped in 2019 with the opening of Gene Dillon Elementary.

Murray laid out some recommendations going forward as:

• Oppose the motion on March 15 and keep Central Elementary as a school.

• Reduce the deficit at the high school level by implementing a six-period day

• Investigate the opportunity for an emergency referendum.

• Lobby state legislatures to fully fund the cost of special education.

• Position Central Elementary strategically to meet the enrollment demands long-term.

Also on the docket

During Monday’s meeting, the school board will also vote on whether or not to increase activities fees and ticket costs for admission to games, events for middle and high school students and families.

This increase -- around 30% in some cases -- would serve as a revenue generator.

The Board of Education has the right to make certain charges and establish fees in areas considered extracurricular, non-curricular or supplementary to the requirements for the successful completion of a required class or educational program.

The board will also hear another review of budget projections, an online learning program update and a proposal of a JROTC field trip to Florida.

The board will also begin its search for new student board representatives, as both Joel Roberts and Abigail Elquist will be graduating at the end of this school year.

Meeting details

The Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education will meet at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, March 15, for its regularly scheduled meeting. Ahead of this meeting at 5 p.m., the board will hold a public hearing on the topic of Central Elementary. Community members who fill out a form requesting to speak will have two minutes to address the board.

These meetings can be viewed live on the Bemidji Area Schools YouTube channel.