BEMIDJI -- Elementary school boundary adjustments, updated class size projections and activity fee increases will be discussed during an upcoming special Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education meeting on Thursday, April 8.
During this meeting, board members will hear from Superintendent Tim Lutz and other district officials regarding the impacts of the impending closure of Central School, ahead of the official school board meeting for April later in the month.
“The April meeting is traditionally our most difficult meeting to have because that's usually the deadline in terms of making any adjustments in our staffing,” Lutz said.
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.
Many of the topics the board will learn about at the special meeting stem from the decision to close Central Elementary School, which passed 5-1 during the board meeting on March 15, and was projected to save the district $460,000 to $465,000.
The preview of the special meeting listed three topics of discussion.
Classroom adjustment projections
The board will hear an update on class size adjustments throughout the district, many stemming from the closure of Central Elementary School and the redistribution of its students.
This will show the board the numbers of students anticipated per class in schools around ISD 31, and subsequently, how many teachers will be required.
Lutz said this update to board members will be, “to make sure that they know as we change our boundaries, what the classroom size adjustments will be. This also kind of a precursor to the April board meeting when we end up having to make some cuts based on classroom adjustments and sizes for next year.”
Typically, the April board meeting is when staff cuts are made, as it comes after many students have registered for classes, and before staff contracts are finalized. Lutz will likely make recommendations to the board as to where to reduce staffing during the special board meeting, with formal action being taken by the board during the April 19 meeting.
Voting to close Central Elementary meant board members will now need to make the call on where to send Central Elementary’s 109 students next year.
Lutz said most of the work to determine this -- where students will go, potential cost increases and decreases -- has already been completed. The special meeting will serve as an opportunity for Lutz and the transportation director, Rob Wicklund, to explain the “why” behind these decisions.
“We just want our transportation director and I to have a chance to explain to the board, and show them our new boundaries for our K-3 elementaries now that central is closing and those students go into different schools,” Lutz said. “It's not too complicated, some of them are going to (J.W. Smith Elementary), some of them on the north side of town will be going to Northern. If they live toward the south side of the Central region, they may go to Horace May or Lincoln.”
During the March 15 meeting, 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 two will answer board member questions, giving time to make adjustments ahead of the final approval and informing Central Elementary families where their children will be attending next school year.
Current elementary school boundary maps in Bemidji can be viewed on the Minnesota Department of Education website.
This decision will be finalized at the April 19 board meeting, then that information will be distributed to Central families.
Payment of fees and other charges policy
Potential changes in the current fee structure for sports, activities and event tickets were a large topic of discussion during the March 15 board meeting.
While the move would serve as a potential revenue generator during the district’s budget shortfall, many board members seemed worried that the move would discourage students from participating in school activities.
“It's to find the right balance between charging what we need to charge, but also being fair and equitable,” Lutz said. “We don't want any increases to cause students to be unable to participate. We want to take a careful look at coming up with a middle ground, a balanced approach to whatever we charge so that it's fair, equitable and doesn't preclude anyone.”
Lutz said he hopes the board will come to a consensus on the fee increase issue during the special meeting so it can be brought to a vote during the official board meeting on April 19.
The number of people in the building during the special meeting will be limited due to COVID-19 restrictions, but the special meeting can be viewed on the Bemidji Area Schools YouTube channel. It will take place at 5 p.m. on Thursday, April 8, in the District Board Room of the Downtown Education Center.