BEMIDJI -- The Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education decided unanimously on Monday night to hold a special election to try for another operating referendum in November.
On Tuesday, Nov. 2, Bemidji school district voters will answer the simple question, “Shall the revocation of the existing referendum authority and the replacement with a new referendum revenue authorization proposed by the board of Independent School District No. 31 (Bemidji), Minnesota be approved?” with a “yes” or “no.”
If the measure passes, the district's existing referendum authority of $180 per pupil will be revoked and replaced with a new referendum authority of $460 per pupil -- a net increase of $280 per pupil. These taxes would be payable in 2022 and applicable for 10 years unless otherwise revoked or reduced as provided by law.
“To me, this is part of my role as a board member, to work to provide kids the best opportunity that we can for their education,” Board Chair Ann Long Voelkner said ahead of the vote. “The support of the community just enables us to move forward that goal, and do the best we can with the money that we have for kids in their community. That's why I am in favor of moving forward with this referendum.”
The action follows months of discussion, the idea has loosely been on the table since the last referendum failed in 2020.
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. The amount requested -- $460 per pupil -- was the same in 2020.
Will the public’s answer change this time around? According to data from community surveys sent out by the district in May -- maybe.
Reasons for the referendum
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.
“When we look at our comparable districts, who are similar to us in student size, population, demographics and geographical size, we are one of if not the lowest of our peer groups in our operating referendum,” Fenner said.
Due to this gap, stagnant state funding, and the backlash received from the community related to proposed budget cuts this year, the board moved to explore another referendum.
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.
Data reported that 3,193 people responded to the survey, representing 18% of the district's voters.
Respondents were asked which areas the board should and shouldn't consider to solve the budget crisis, and they suggested delaying purchases of new buses, delaying curriculum updates, and charging students higher participation fees.
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.
Opting for a $460 per pupil levy instead of a $560 per pupil levy means the measure will be more likely to pass, but that the district may still need to make budget cuts.
“The recommended amount for $460 is really going to end up being just a breakeven for us,” Board Member Jeff Lind said. “It is not going to be a building back of programs, (but) it will at the very least, cause us to not have to make any future deep cuts in the near future.”
“If we keep our belts extremely tight, and work very hard to be good stewards of the tax dollars, as we always have, this should be enough for now,” Fenner said. “Ten years from now, with inflation, it may not be, but right now, it is the answer to a break-even solution.”
Besides the confidence boost from the survey responses, board members also suggested that the measure may be more likely to pass a second time around due to the stakes being laid out on the table -- the public saw the gravity of the budget crisis with the closure of Central Elementary and other cuts -- as well as the ability to campaign more publicly as pandemic restrictions subside.
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-related expenses.
With the passage of the measure and only fourth months to go until Election Day, it’ll be all hands on deck at the district.
“We have a lot of work in front of us,” Long Voelkner said. “And a very short amount of time, so be prepared for active participation.”
Members of the board discussed the need to recruit volunteers to turn out the vote, answer questions and distribute lawn signs.
“We've decided to move forward with a referendum to allow us to stay competitive educationally with our corresponding districts in Minnesota,” Board Member Jeff Lind said. “To be a part of that we're going to need community support. I would strongly encourage people that have talked about wanting to improve educational experiences for kids, that they contact us, we're going to need a lot of help on this. This is not something that six board members can do. I would make a plea that people contact the district office and get their names on a list so we can start moving this forward.”
In their remarks, board members asked the public for their support of the measure.
“In all the years that I've been on the board we have been very respectful of our community,” Board Member Carol Johnson said. “We know our boundaries. We know what we can and cannot do. We don't want to put any undue burden on our taxpayers and stakeholders. We appreciate their support, we need their support. We would appreciate the community's support for our kids and their education.”