BEMIDJI -- If you live in Bemidji, you probably received an eight-page survey in the mail a couple of weeks ago.
Bemidji Area Schools distributed it with the hope of informing the public on the districts’ financial issues, gauging voters’ feelings toward another referendum, and collecting guidance on areas to spare or cut. The Bemidji school board hopes the survey responses will help it decide whether or not to go out for another referendum after last year’s failed attempt.
The survey must be completed by May 25.
Last November, the board put a referendum to a vote and heard a resounding “no” back -- around 60% of voters refused the ballot measure, with the question receiving 11,725 “no” votes and 7,851 “yes” votes.
Post pandemic and after making around $4 million in reductions and staffing cuts, the district is seeking to learn how people are feeling -- generous or ... not so much.
“One of the greatest issues facing the Bemidji Area School District is addressing our ongoing budget challenges. As you are probably aware, a referendum to address our operational funding needs failed to win voter support last November. As a result, the district was forced to close Central Elementary, make staffing reductions, cut supply and program budgets and increase student fees,” Superintendent Tim Lutz wrote in a letter to the community sent along with the survey. “Our plans going forward must reflect the needs of our students and the priorities of taxpayers.”
The school district is facing a budget crisis in the wake of this year, worse than the one it was anticipating pre-pandemic. Ahead of the cuts made over the past few months, the district sought to reduce the budget by $5.6 million to stay above the red.
Since then, many of these cuts have been made, and additional federal funding has been received thanks to the CARES Act. According to the letter, despite these cuts, the district is still forecasting a $2.5 million budget shortfall for each of the next 10 years.
Goals of the survey
In addition to gauging public interest in another referendum, the survey seeks input on whether or not more cuts should be made, along with where, and informs the community where the school district's finances stand now.
In April, the board of education heard a presentation from Sue Peterson of School Perceptions, the organization conducting the survey.
Peterson outlined a set of goals that 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.
“Really, you've been great stewards of taxpayers’ dollars so we want to make sure your citizens understand that,” Peterson said.
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.
Who can fill out the survey? Basically, people who can vote for or against a potential referendum. The survey was 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.
If you received only one survey and have more than one survey-eligible household member -- contact the school district to receive more access codes.
At the April meeting, board members seemed concerned about potential low response rates -- Board Member Gabriel Warren said the detailed nature of the eight-page survey might cause some people to avoid responding.
School Perceptions said, typically, they see around a 20% response rate, but that they can make accurate predictions as long as at least 500 people respond.
During the May school board meeting, Superintendent Lutz said the survey had already received more than 1,900 responses.
In November, 19,576 people voted on the referendum issue in total. According to the Census, 38,793 people live in the Bemidji Independent School District area.
What the district wants you to know
A primary goal of the survey was to inform the voters/respondents of the districts’ financial situation and action taken thus far. Voters being uninformed was a suggested reason for the first referendum’s failure.
The decision to consider another referendum has received some community backlash.
“Surveys are supposed to be objective questionnaires used to gather information. It’s obvious this really isn’t a survey, but a thinly veiled attempt to try to convince the community to ignore the vote that rejected the operating levy increase so they can place it on the ballot again,” Dan Jurek wrote recently in a Pioneer letter to the editor. “If you don’t like the voting results, why not just hold a new election?”
The survey also gives a definition of bond funding versus operating levies.
“An operating levy helps fund programs and services. These funds support day-to-day operations, such as staffing, educational programming and student services. These funds are used the same year they are received. A school building bond is used to pay for major building projects. These construction project funds (bonds) cannot be used for general operating expenses,” the survey explains.
Seemingly to respond back to people who claim the district has not been spending wisely, hence ending up in this budget situation, the survey also lays out the school pupil funding model from the state as follows:
“School districts receive the majority of their funding from the state. The largest portion of this funding, which comes from the basic general education formula, has not kept up with inflation, resulting in school districts receiving $639 less per student than they did in 2003. This is why more than 70% of school districts in the state have a voter-approved operating levy in place.
In addition, there have been numerous new mandates for schools, most of which require additional staffing, but no additional state funding,” the survey explains.
According to the survey, in the Bemidji Area Schools district, these mandates are compounded by an increased need for special education services, significant transportation costs and students enrolling in charter and private schools.
“When students who live in the Bemidji Area School district attend a charter or private school, the district loses funding, despite being required to provide transportation and other services for these students,” the survey continues.
The survey collects general demographic information -- city or township of residence, age, whether or not you work for the district, whether or not you have school-aged children, and if so, where they attend.
The survey lays out four potential scenarios when it comes to operating referendums:
An operating levy that provides $2 million per year ($360 per student) for each of the next 10 years, requiring the district to continue to make reductions every year.
An operating levy that provides $2.5 million per year ($460 per student) for each of the next 10 years, allowing the district to strive to maintain the current level of programs and services.
An operating levy that provides $3.1 million per year ($560 per student) for each of the next 10 years, allowing the district to explore reinstating some of the reductions that have been made.
Do not support any levy that results in increases in taxes.
In the survey, a table is provided to estimate the amount of tax increases per household in each scenario, depending on estimated home value.
In 2014, Bemidji school district voters approved a $180 per pupil, 10-year operating levy to support the district’s day-to-day operations, including staffing, educational programming and student services. This means the lowest referendum option considered would double the local taxpayers per pupil contribution. While doubling the per pupil amount may sound like a large change, the district asserts that a $460 per pupil levy would be on par with other school districts of similar size.
In comparison to the failed referendum, if it had been approved, this measure would have revoked the district’s existing referendum authority of $180 per pupil and enacted a new one for $460 per pupil. The tax would have been levied in 2020 for taxes payable in 2021 and applicable for 10 years unless otherwise revoked or reduced. The property tax portion of the revenue authorized would have required an estimated referendum tax rate of 0.07384% for taxes payable in 2021.
Other areas of consideration for reductions were posed to the community as well:
Should the district further increase class sizes to reduce costs?
Should curriculum updates be further delayed to save money?
Should the district reduce college credit and/or elective courses to save money?
Should the district close one or more schools to save money?
Should the district charge higher fees for student activity participation?
Should the district reduce the number of athletic/activity offerings?
Should the district reduce support staff to save money?
Should the district further delay purchasing replacement buses?
Should the district change busing policies and add fees?
Should the technology budget be reduced to save money?
Other cuts have been suggested by community members in recent months, including cutting the salaries of administrators and teachers, however, due to contracts and negotiations with teachers’ unions, this is not an option on the table. There are also boxes provided on the survey to write in and explain other ideas for the district to save money.
Final community survey results will be presented to the Board of Education at the June 21 meeting and will also be published on the Bemidji Area Schools website.
If you have an access code, the survey can be taken at www.feedback2000.com.