BEMIDJI -- In a year of heartbreaking meetings, the April 19 Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education meeting was quite possibly the worst.

During the meeting, more than 23 licensed staff were slated to be eliminated. Staffing changes typically occur during April board meetings due to timelines with staff contracts, other districts’ hiring schedules and student registration.

The board also looked at redistricting attendance boundaries due to the closure of Central Elementary, explored surveying the community about another referendum and raised activity fees.

Staffing changes

Board Chair Ann Long Voelkner solemnly addressed the room ahead of the staffing changes motion.

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“The next items on our agenda, again, are very, I'm just gonna say, awful,” she said. “Tonight we are here reducing positions. And that really means reducing people in their jobs, and we know that this is an emotional and a tough and an awful time for people. Board action, per these reductions, is life-altering.”

Shortly thereafter, the school board unanimously passed a measure that would reduce the budget for licensed staff by about $1.6 million.

The largest reductions were made at the elementary levels -- this is due to the closure of Central Elementary, enrollment numbers, and the “patch year” solution at the high school level holding off major changes there for a while.

In total, about four full-time teachers were cut from Bemidji High School, two full-time teachers and a part-time music teacher position were cut from Bemidji Middle School, and nearly two full-time equivalent positions were cut from the Alternative Education Center and the Paul Bunyan Center. At the middle school, the move will reduce the number of seventh-grade pods from three-and-a-half to three.

Twenty-one teachers were cut at the elementary school level, but eight full-time teachers were added, as well as a part-time principal at J.W. Smith, stemming from the rearranging of students attending Central.

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In total, the salary and benefits of the eliminated positions were equivalent to $2.5 million, and the addition of eight-and-a-half full-time equivalent positions at the elementary level costs $843,000 in salary and benefits, leaving the total impact on the budget as a savings of $1.6 million.

The board was provided with a list of 21 staff members who will be notified that their contracts will not be renewed. Another three staff members will be placed on unrequested leave of absence, with one of those three being offered a part-time position instead.

ISD 31 Director of Human Resources Jordan Hickman addressed the board, saying, “A majority of what I'm bringing forward today are reductions, those reductions and recommendations tonight are the result of budgetary shortfalls, licensure issues, shifting enrollments within the district, and the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Hickman mentioned that these eliminations were only licensed staff and that other reductions have been, and will continue to be made, within the non-licensed staff.

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Staffing adjustments made for non-certified staff, like paraprofessionals, administrative assistants or custodians, don’t need board approval. Long Voelkner said $500,000 to $800,000 worth of these positions has already been identified for reductions.

Another referendum?

The district will soon gauge the community’s feelings toward another school referendum vote.

Sue Peterson of School Perceptions, an organization that works with school districts to conduct surveys, gave a presentation to the board on the status of community surveys regarding a potential referendum. The board approved the measure, and Peterson said the survey will hit Bemidji mailboxes around May 7 and be due back May 25.

Peterson said after receiving the survey responses, they should be able to give the district a recommendation of whether or not to go ahead with another referendum.

“Once all of that is done we will be able to take the data after May 25 and really look at it, slice and dice it in a variety of ways, and tell you really where your community is at as far as what would make sense moving forward with the next attempt at a levy,” she said.

The survey will be sent to people who have a primary residence within the school district -- with the most attention given to survey results from people who do not have children in the district and are not district employees.

Peterson laid out a list of goals the public should be able to take away from the surveys:

  • People should learn how much money the district needs to be fully funded, as well as how much has already been cut from the budget this year.

  • The public needs to know why the district is facing this budget crisis.

  • The public needs to know that the issues the district is facing are not unique to Bemidji, many schools are facing budget shortfalls post-pandemic.

  • The survey needs to clearly explain the difference between levies and bonds. For example, the money from the Gene Dillon bond referendum cannot be used to solve this crisis, as bond referendum funds must be used for a specific project, like the construction of a building.

  • A new budget projection update will also be given.

“Really, you've been great stewards of taxpayers’ dollars so we want to make sure your citizens understand that,” Peterson said.

Board members seemed concerned about low response rates -- Board Member Gabriel Warren said the detailed nature of the eight-page survey might cause some people to avoid responding.

The company said typically, they see around a 20% response rate, but that they can make accurate predictions as long as at least 500 people respond.

The full board meeting can be viewed on the Bemidji Area Schools YouTube channel.