BEMIDJI -- Bemidji has spoken and it’s another “no.”

Bemidji Area Schools’ referendum failed on Tuesday as 7,183 voters took to the polls, with 3,432 voting in favor and 3,749 voting against the ballot measure. A difference of 317 votes.

After months of tense school board meetings and budget discussions, Bemidji voters filed into their respective polling places for the school district’s special election to help determine the district’s financial fate.

A total of 1,345 voters took part in early voting, which was open through Nov. 1, according to Superintendent Tim Lutz, showing eagerness to answer the ballot 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” vote.

The votes will be certified at 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 9, at a special canvasing meeting at the district office.

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Opposing views

Being a relatively close call of an election may not be a surprise with the fervent support on both sides of the referendum coin. The independently-funded volunteer committee Vote Yes Bemidji rallied in support of a new referendum authority while opposing groups like Vote No Bemidji and the Bemidji Parent's Union communicated disapproval of a referendum tax increase.

With all three groups having an online presence, some back-and-forth comments are typical to see. Following the election results being made public, Vote No Bemidji's Facebook page posted that they are "glad that the voters were heard today, but also hopeful that this vote will spur change in the school district and all of our children will have a better educational experience in its wake."

Vote No Bemidji also argued that balancing the district's budget was not a burden for the community to bear, stating that "the district is responsible for budgetary mistakes and indiscretions, and we are not going to accept blame for it."

The Bemidji Parent's Union also encouraged people to vote "no" when mentioning that "spending has increased and results have decreased. We can't spend our way to success. Let's get back to the basics," in an Oct. 30 Facebook post.

These and other posts have been met with mixed reactions and debate revolving around the district's budget deficit and ways to reduce spending.

In a release, Lutz honored the democratic process while reminding the public that the district's budget issues remain unresolved.

"We respect the decision made by school district voters," Lutz said. "Now that our communities have given us clear direction on our financial situation, we will need to move ahead with stabilizing our budget through continued prudent spending, making additional budgetary cuts and working with state lawmakers to fully fund public education in Minnesota."

Board member Jeff Haack echoed Lutz' statements recognizing that the high voter turnout sends a message that many Bemidji community members would prefer spending cuts over providing additional local revenue, a discussion that will continue to permeate future board meetings.

"The next opportunities for financial change will come during the ongoing contract negotiations and staffing adjustments that typically occur in April," Haack mentioned. "We will also be looking forward to the findings of the high school scheduling committee. There should be no surprises when the budget reduction discussion resumes."

Several board members highlighted possible future budget cuts and reductions including more building closures, adjusting the four-period school day, reducing the number of bus routes, along with staffing reductions and program eliminations.

A financial cliff

If the measure had passed, the district’s existing referendum authority of $180 per pupil would have been revoked and replaced with a new authority of $460 per pupil -- a net increase of $280 per pupil -- with the goal of maintaining the current level of programs and services in the district.

The estimated property tax rate would have been 0.07384%, for taxes payable in 2022 and applicable for 10 years unless otherwise revoked or reduced.

Such an increase in the operating levy would have provided the district $2.5 million per year for each of the next 10 years, though the net increase would be closer to $1.5 million for the district’s budget.

Lutz has delivered several presentations to the community where he credited underfunded mandates and state funding not keeping up with inflation as the two culprits for the district’s budget deficit.

During an Oct. 18 board meeting, Lutz detailed a special education shortfall of $4.5 million and a transportation shortfall of $750,000 each year for the past few years due to the state not being required to fully fund these mandates.

He also shared a graph showing the increasing gap between the district’s expenditures and revenue, projecting the district having $71.7 million in revenue and $75.3 million in expenditures by the 2024-2025 school year, a $3.6 million deficit.

Following a failed first attempt at a referendum in November 2020, the Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education was tasked with making significant budget cuts including the closure of Central Elementary. Wanting to avoid further cuts and reductions, they voted in July to go for this second attempt as part of a special election, hoping voters would be more informed of the issue.

Since the referendum failed to pass, the district will likely hit another financial cliff after ESSER funds run out. The district received three rounds of funding, used to address learning loss due to the pandemic, which total around $18 million and must be spent by Sept. 30, 2024.

District Business Director Krisi Fenner shared during the October board meeting that the district’s unreserved fund balance at the end of the 2020 fiscal year was $1.6 million, while $7 million is considered their “healthy” target for funds.