BEMIDJI -- The closing of Central Elementary was a decision no one wanted to make.
“We have come to the point in the agenda where none of us want to be, yet here we are,” Board Chair Ann Long Voelkner said Monday evening, after hours of deliberation. The number of attendees in the hallway outside the district board room had started to dwindle and community members began to droop from standing to sitting on the floor.
The split was 5-1, with all members voting “yea” with the exception of newest board member Gabriel Warren, to “approve the closure of Central Elementary School and redistricting attendance boundaries for Central Elementary students to other neighborhood PreK-3 elementary schools.”
Bemidji’s school district is facing a severe 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.
Numerous cost-saving measures were recommended to the board to help close this gap, 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.
A somber air filled the room after the vote, as board members grasped at potential positives -- like near-zero district COVID-19 numbers and unexpectedly high test scores. The small crowd outside the doors dissipated.
The growing gap
Prior to the vote, -- and in case anyone forgot the gravity of the situation ahead of the Central decision -- ISD 31 Business Director Krisi Fenner again laid out the budget projection updates, as she has at every board meeting in recent months.
“The future is uncertain and it is essential that we maintain a positive fund balance,” she said of her recommendation that the district fills the $5.6 million gap to put it back a positive $1.6 million general fund balance.
The district is starting out with $1.6 million in its unrestricted general fund. She projects a budget deficit of $2.7 million stemming from enrollment loss, however, the district should end the year in the black back at $1.6 million thanks to $4.9 million of federal relief ESSER II Funding, which is to be split between 2020-21 and 2021-22.
In the fiscal year 2022, things turn for the worst, with an end projection of negative $4 million in the general fund balance after factoring in enrollment revenue loss, compensatory revenue loss and expenditure inflation.
Fenner explained the numbers will change due to increases and decreases in enrollment, hiring freezes, potential state aid, potential federal aid or a patch year at the high school.
Fenner noted that free and reduced lunch application numbers are down -- which she attributes to free lunches being available from USDA, and those in distance learning being able to eat food from home -- this accounts for the compensatory revenue loss.
The American Rescue Plan, which was signed by President Joe Biden on March 12, includes $122.8 billion for K-12 funding, but it is not yet known how much, if any, the district will receive, she added.
“There will be more reductions to come, but this is what we have addressed so far,” Fenner concluded.
After Fenner’s address, Superintendent Tim Lutz took the podium, speaking with a bit more dread and intensity than usual in the face of such grave topics. He brought up several arguments he’s heard over the last few weeks, both in his inbox and on social media.
He again displayed the charts and graphs he circulated ahead of the referendum campaign, to remind the public that they knew what the outcomes would be if the referendum failed.
“Nobody in this room wanted to cut a school. For that matter, nobody in this room wanted to make any of the cuts we have made, or will make,” Lutz said. “This is a time we have never experienced before, with cuts this large.”
Lutz again explained how the district got into this mess, refuting social media claims that the district isn’t controlling its spending. He threw it back to the state, which accounts for a large percentage of the district’s funding, not keeping up with the cost of maintaining public schools.
Bemidji Area Schools currently rely on local funding for 12-13% of operating costs. Federal funding covers around 6% and state aid covers the rest, but about 25% is designated for required purposes.
“We’ve gotten here over the course of many years of funding that has not kept up with the cost of running schools,” Lutz said, adding that when inflation is factored in, state aid has effectively decreased over the last 14 years, because there has not been an increase of over 2% since 2007.
“Fully funded schools mean fully prepared students,” he said, and then expressed his frustration with state lawmakers for not making education funding a priority. “Bemidji suffers more than many.”
He then shared the contact information of Minnesota Legislators who have the power to make effective changes at the state level, and encouraged the public to contact them.
“Superintendents all over the state are lobbying legislators but they are making cuts while they are doing it,” Lutz said. ‘The passion that we heard tonight needs to be directed to the legislators. We need to ask our legislators to make education important again.”
Lutz said they saw this issue coming before the pandemic even happened, hence why the district decided to go out for the referendum in the first place.
“The referendum failed, and COVID-19 greatly compounded that problem,” he said. “We’ve seen major losses of revenue due to COVID, not just expenses, but through student enrollment.”
He explained the looming threat of statutory operating debt -- if the district falls into debt, it must present the Minnesota Department of Education with a plan “to balance the budget,” Lutz said.
“If not aggressive enough, MDE will come in and start asking questions like, ‘why do you have two elementary schools eight blocks away from each other?’ ‘Why do you have a show choir?’ ‘Why do you have a soccer team?’ ‘You already have a football team,’” he said.
He described the statewide free and reduced lunch funding as a “small pot of money,” that districts are fighting over.
“We need to ask the legislature to step up and give us what we need. Last year would’ve been the year, but then COVID happened and now the state is struggling,” he said.
Lutz said he received an email suggesting that the board is trying to “sneak through” another referendum.
“You heard about it at the board meeting, that means we aren’t trying to sneak it through,” Lutz retorted, regarding a potential referendum.
“I really do hope that we can go out for a referendum, I think people would support it, but we can’t wait, we have to act now,” he said, referencing that a referendum could not be held until the next Election Day in November, and then taxes on it could not be collected until the next fiscal year, if passed.
He refuted another common social media talking point, “'the district just built Gene Dillon and now they want to close a school, why?’”
He explained that Gene Dillon was built with a bond referendum -- meaning as voters approved it, the money could be used only to build Gene Dillon -- and since it was built it left open rooms at the district’s elementary schools due to the absence of fourth and fifth graders, which will leave space for the children coming from Central.
Some questioned why the district keeps calling Central the oldest school, when J.W. Smith was actually built a few years earlier. Lutz said in the eyes of the state, due to square footage and renovations done to J.W. Smith over the years, Central is older.
People on social media have also called for the school board members to take pay cuts -- this is something that is actually on the list of recommended actions presented at the February work session, but as the members make a minimal salary in the first place, it would be more of a symbolic gesture than an impactful one.
Finally, after a full background of the grave financial scenario, Lutz came to the topic at hand.
“We’ve gotten a lot of reactions to the decision to close Central,” he said. “And they are all heartbreaking.”
He said closing Central has been under backburner consideration for two decades as the smallest and “oldest” school.
“Unfortunately, we cannot delay the decision any longer and kick the can down the road for the next school board,” Lutz said.
Lutz fought back assertions that closing Central is a short-term solution.
He said Central is in need of a good bit of maintenance and that the building is not handicap accessible.
Half a million dollars every year go toward running and maintaining the Central building, he said, and noted that the revenue coming into Central -- the students and their funding -- will go to other schools, assuming that those students don’t decide to leave the district in the wake of Central’s closure.
Lutz compared the petitions received Monday -- one with 1,200 signatures -- to the “petition” received Nov. 5 by voters -- which had 11,725 “no” votes on the operating referendum. The measure received 7,851 “yes” votes.
“That is how we got to be where we are at right now,” he said with a sigh.
Public shares comments, alternative solutions
Despite posted signs limiting the area to eight people, a few dozen educators, community members and parents filled the hallway outside of the district board room ahead of the meeting Monday night.
Kelli Jensen, a second grade teacher from Central Elementary, met the gaze of the six board members as she listed off qualities of the students who would be directly affected by a vote to close the school.
“I would like to share a bit more about the students you are affecting by closing Central,” she began. “Some of our students are homeless, while others live in foster care because their parents are in treatment facilities trying to better themselves. Some of our students suffer from severe mental health issues stemming from neglect and abandonment, while others struggle to stay awake all day because they are up all night caring for their younger siblings.
“These students aren’t just a number in my eyes, they are kids with individual needs that need to be taken into consideration,” she concluded.
The board heard another 16 impassioned speakers during an hour and a half long public hearing held ahead of their decision to still ultimately close the school.
According to the ISD 31 website, 28 teachers, paraprofessionals, maintenance and food service workers are employed at Central.
In a work session in February, the board learned a closure of Central would likely cut only three teaching positions, as many of the classroom teachers would follow students to other district buildings. The closure would also cut two paraprofessionals, a secretary and a part-time custodial position.
The community speakers offered up a number of potential other solutions: moving all of the preschool students in the community from the Paul Bunyan Center to Central, closing Gene Dillon, getting rid of the four-period day at the high school, restructuring special education, going out for another referendum, expanding the range of taxpayers funding the district and tabling major decisions until the district knows whether or not it will qualify for federal aid.
Mitch Eickman, who works in food service at Central, passionately addressed the board, arguing that the district isn’t living up to its mission “to empower each learner to succeed in a diverse and changing world.”
He advocated for closing Gene Dillon instead of Central and cutting programs at the high school level.
“We’re going to lose a lot of longtime and legacy programs and that’s going to be sad but at least then we’ll have a leg to stand on,” Eickman said.
Mike Murray, a professor at BSU who provided a policy brief to the board on the status of Central addressed the board twice during the evening, urging them not to close the school. As he pounded his fist on the podium, he said, “Do not make it harder for the kids that already have it the hardest.”
Erin Shaw Murray, speaking quickly and passionately, presented the board with a petition she created that amassed 1,200 signatures. She exited to applause.
Board Member Warren gave a recap of the public hearing to the board during the official meeting, and noted the consistent concerns of attendees as being:
Increased class sizes
Longer bus rides, the possibility of increased transportation costs.
Community, family and a neighborhood connection.
The ability for students to walk to school
Marginalized students being affected, particularly Black and Indigenous families, as well as homeless students.
Children of ISD 31 employees are still leaving the district for charter and private schools.
Board members’ questions
After Superintendent Lutz said his piece and before a formal vote, the board members raised their concerns.
Board Member Jeff Lind interjected, “If we close Central -- I don’t want to come back five to ten years from now and say, ‘We need another school.’”
Applause rang out from the remaining hallway attendees.
Lutz refuted this, saying that since Gene Dillon was built the district has space on its hands, and suggested that in a dire situation, the Paul Bunyan Center could be used if needed.
“We have room because we built Gene Dillon. We have room to grow,” Lutz said, but then went on to include, “If in 20 years we found ourselves in a tight situation, Central would not be the answer.”
Board Member Carol Johnson questioned what it would cost to the district to make Central worthy of renting, as Lutz had said it is in need of maintenance.
Lutz said he didn’t know as it would depend on who was renting it and for which purpose, as there are specific codes and requirements for public schools that other tenants may not need to follow.
Warren asked about Central’s family-like connection, adding that it’s hard to duplicate the culture at a new place. He was concerned that without this culture, students might leave the district for other options.
“We have to move forward with the budget and student body that we have, not the one we want,” Haack said. “This isn’t a place that we want to be.”
The votes were cast, and afterward, a somber board continued on with the rest of the meeting agenda as the small audience dispersed.
What’s next for those 109 students attending Central?
Lutz laid out the plan -- he said the third-grade students will be heading to Gene Dillon where there will be room -- it is not clear if the current plan is to send all district third-graders to Gene Dillon so the elementary schools will house PreK-2, or if in saying this, he only meant Central’s third-graders.
Laughter came from the hallway when Lutz mentioned that closing Central would not increase class sizes. He then explained that the teachers will be going with their students to empty classrooms in elementary schools around the district.
Lutz said the numbers had been crunched on transportation costs -- with the closure of Central, bussing students to other schools would only cost the district around $500 more per year.
The district hopes to avoid turning Central into a “squatters haven,” he said, suggesting that he wants to work together with the community so the building can, “become a vibrant neighborhood center that can meet the needs of people in this town.”