BEMIDJI -- A second request may come. This time, will the answer be different?
Wednesday night, Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education members weighed going for another operating referendum which would require calling for a special election in November. They also debated, if they go forward with it, how much to levy.
The board and its cabinet discussed options at a special meeting on July 14 but did not reach an official consensus. The formal decision will come on Monday, July 19 at the regular board meeting.
In June, the board received results from a survey of the community, which was distributed with the hope of informing the public on the district’s financial issues, gauging voters’ feelings toward another referendum, and collecting guidance on areas to spare or cut.
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.
Data reported that 3,193 people responded to the survey, representing 18% of the district's voters.
Respondents were asked what areas the board should and shouldn't consider to help solve the budget crisis, and they suggested delaying purchases of new buses, delaying curriculum updates, and charging students higher participation fees. According to respondents, increasing class sizes and reducing support staff are the least desirable options.
The Bemidji Area Schools voters approved an operating levy of $180 per-pupil for the district in 2014. The district has experienced a significant budget shortfall due to increased costs and other factors in recent years. Compared to districts around the state, the Bemidji district has a relatively low per-pupil rate. According to ISD 31 Business Director Krisi Fenner, the maximum per-pupil levy allowable by the state is around $1,700.
In the community surveys, respondents were asked which, if any, ballot measures they would support. The options were a $560 per-pupil levy, which if passed would allow the district to reinstate some of the cuts made this year, a $460 per-pupil levy, which if passed would allow the district to maintain the status quo, and a $360 per-pupil levy, which if passed, would require the district to continue making reductions each year.
A total of 59% of residents who responded to the survey recommended that the district explore another operating levy. According to the responses, a $560 per-pupil levy would be unlikely to pass, but a $460 per-pupil levy could be viable.
During Wednesday’s session, board members weighed the pros and cons of going for a $460 levy versus a $360 levy.
Some didn’t want to go through the big ask and time commitment of a referendum special election to only ask for $360 and still have to make cuts.
Other members thought the overall difference between the two options was too small to risk the measure failing -- the $460 levy would draw an additional $1.5 million per year. In the grand scheme of things, it would make a relatively small dent in the district’s budget. Some suggested the risk of the ballot measure failing entirely is greater than the reward of an additional $100 per student.
All seemed to agree that if they decide to ask the community for another referendum, it has to be all hands on deck.
Superintendent Tim Lutz said in the wake of the past referendum, some parents and community members, including some who voted against the measure and later regretted it, said they would help get out the vote if the board decided to ask again.
Lutz also said without COVID-19 restrictions, campaigning would be much easier, as they could hold in-person events and informational sessions.
Board members said they hoped to try to have clear answers for community questions distributed ahead of any type of ballot measure -- for example, board members said they had been asked to explain where all of the federal COVID-19 relief funding will be going, and why that funding does not solve the need for a referendum.
Several board members suggested a referendum held during a special election instead of a general election would be more successful because the referendum question won't be swept up in partisan politics. People going to vote on the ballot measure will likely be informed of the issue.
Fenner said it’ll cost the district about $50,000 to go out for an operating referendum this year. Since it is not a general election, the district would have to pay for election expenses. The board will have to notify the state by August 18 -- two days after the August 16 regular meeting -- if they intend to hold a special election.
The Bemidji Area Schools Board will hold a meeting Monday, July 19 in the district board room. It can also be viewed on the Bemidji Area Schools YouTube channel.