BEMIDJI -- With less than a month before the Bemidji school district holds its upcoming special election referendum vote, Superintendent Tim Lutz and a referendum special committee have been getting the word out for voting.
On Tuesday, Nov. 2, Bemidji school district voters will answer the simple question, “Shall the revocation of the existing referendum authorization and the new 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.
According to Lutz, about 90% of the funding will go toward student learning, student growth, student connections and activities.
How we got here
The Bemidji Area Schools voters approved an operating levy of $180 per pupil for the district in 2014. Since then, the district has experienced a significant budget shortfall due to increased costs, reduced state funding and other factors in recent years. Compared to districts around the state, the Bemidji district has a relatively low per-pupil rate.
The next shot at a referendum failed in November 2020 after the measure received 11,725 “no” votes and 7,851 “yes” votes, meaning the district was unable to revoke its current referendum authority of $180 per pupil and replace it with an authority of $460.
Following the vote, the district had no choice but to make significant budget cuts including the closure of Central Elementary after the 2020-2021 school year, saving the district an estimated $460,000 to $465,000.
More than 20 licensed staff were also cut during an April 19 board meeting, mainly at the elementary level, along with other staff reductions. This decision saved the district $1.6 million, with total cuts by the end of last school year totalling around $4 million.
In an effort to avoid further reductions, a survey was mailed out to the Bemidji community in May to inform the public of the districts’ financial issues as well as to gauge voter sentiment toward another referendum.
A change in outreach
Comparing this year’s outreach efforts to last year’s, the committee is taking a more grassroots approach thanks to many coronavirus-related restrictions being lifted since this time last year, and having an in-person presence in the community.
“Meeting in person is much more effective,” Lutz mentioned regarding his referendum information sessions with the Bemidji Rotary Club, Lion’s Club and other organizations the past several weeks.
Lutz also met with Bemidji Area Schools staff during their Staff Development Day on Monday, Oct. 4, about the referendum, another way of ensuring voters will be informed before casting their votes.
He credited the survey as one way they were able to receive feedback to inform the process of a second referendum vote.
How much would you pay?
Survey respondents were also presented with four options regarding the referendum:
An operating levy that provides $2 million per year (360 per student) for each of the next 10 years, requiring the district to continue making 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.
Of the 3,193 respondents, 36% supported the $560 operating levy while 25% supported the $460 option. Keeping in mind that 61% of respondents supported an authority of at least $460, Lutz was more confident in moving forward with the second attempt of attaining a $460 levy.
“It would be nice to get $560 per pupil, but we are respectful of the responses and if we ask for more, it wouldn’t pass,” Lutz said. “$460 is what we can still work with and not make the cuts we made last year.”
With this choice, the property tax portion of the revenue authorized will require an estimated referendum tax rate of 0.07384% for taxes payable in 2022. With a $460 authority, for a homeowner with a property value of about $100,000, the additional taxes would be about $45 per year if voters choose “yes” this November.
A home valued at $200,000 would have $147.55 taxes payable, a difference of about $90 between the revoked levy authority and the new one. A home valued at $500,000 would have $368.88 taxes payable, a difference of about $225 between the revoked authority and the new one should it pass.
What this means for the budget
If the referendum passes, Lutz hopes the district can buy itself some time while dipping into ESSER funds, or dollars that must be used, in part, to address learning loss due to the pandemic.
The district received three rounds of federal funding, the first being $1.1 million that was used to offset staff costs, address distance learning and funding substitute teaching positions. The second round of $5.2 million was used to backfill lost revenue due to enrollment and compensatory losses.
The third round of $11.6 million, to be spent by Sept. 30, 2024, will be used to address class sizes, mental health supports and maintaining existing staff.
The district spends these dollars first, then asks for reimbursement on a regular basis much like an insurance pay-out. “We receive enough funds to make up for losses, but they won’t address underlying problems,” Lutz mentioned before detailing what would happen if this referendum doesn’t pass.
“With (the referendum passing), the ESSER funds may prevent us from needing to make those cuts. With no referendum, when ESSER funds run out, we’ll be at a fiscal cliff yet again,” Lutz said before referencing an additional $1.5 million in cuts that could take place without a levy increase.
Further budget cuts could include reducing teacher positions, offering fewer elective classes and reducing the number of student activities among other options.
“Our budgets are based on enrollment,” Lutz said. “If we end up losing more students, that could have a huge impact on things and with inflation beyond our control, we just don’t know how the district can maintain its status quo without the referendum.”
Lutz encourages early voting, which can be completed at the district office from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. until Nov. 2 with a valid ID. Otherwise, community members can visit pollfinder.sos.state.mn.us to find where they need to vote on Tuesday, Nov. 2.