Bemidji school board adjusts public comment, approves revised budget at meeting
After more discussion, the board voted unanimously to approve the first reading of the new procedures and to adjust public comment’s placement for the March meeting.
BEMIDJI — Among several agenda items, the Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education took some time to amend their public participation procedures and placement on the agenda during its regular meeting on Monday.
Initially proposed at the January meeting by board member Anna Manecke, the board discussed moving the public comment period toward the beginning of each regular meeting and livestreaming it.
Until a May 2022 regular meeting, public participation had taken place after the student representative reports near the beginning of each meeting and was part of each meeting’s livestream. Starting in June 2022, the comment period was placed at the end of the meeting and not livestreamed.
Manecke referenced school districts in Sartell, Brainerd and Duluth which have their comment period immediately following the agenda’s approval.
“If somebody wants to talk about something on the agenda that we’re going to be discussing, they have that opportunity to do that before a vote,” Manecke said, “and it just makes no sense to have it at the very end of the meeting after everything is said and done.”
Board member Justin Hoover echoed Manecke’s sentiments and expressed support for moving the comment period to the beginning of each meeting.
“By having (public comment) at the end of the agenda, essentially (the public) is being silenced,” Hoover said. “The public wouldn’t be speaking on the current agenda items until the end of the meeting … We want their input. It could sway us in the way that we vote.”
Board treasurer Julie Laitala expressed indifference to the placement of public comment but emphasized the importance of adopting clear and concise rules that the public would follow regarding their comments.
“We have to make sure there’s a clear understanding from the community and from us on what constitutes as (speaking) out of line,” Laitala said. “I enjoy hearing from people. I enjoy hearing different perspectives. I think it just needs to be done with civility.”
Board chair Ann Long-Voelkner spoke about the reason public comment was moved to the end of each meeting and not broadcasted, notably that public speakers would talk about personnel versus board policies.
“That was trying to continue the public comment opportunities and mitigate consistent speaking about people,” Long-Voelkner said.
Superintendent Jeremy Olson provided the board with potential changes to the public input application. These included the addition of their current policy of limiting the entire public comment period to 30 minutes, the right to criticize policies but not employees, and penalties for willful violation of public comment procedures.
After more discussion, the board voted unanimously to approve the first reading of the new procedures and to adjust public comment’s placement toward the beginning of the agenda starting at the March meeting.
The board also approved the district’s revised budget for the 2022-2023 fiscal year following the preliminary budget’s approval in June 2022.
“After the prior fiscal year (2021-2022) is closed out and audited, we’re able to take that finalized data and combine that with current year-to-date information to produce a revised budget that gives us a more accurate prediction of our anticipated revenues and expenditures,” District Business Director Krisi Fenner said.
Under general operations, Fenner noted the general fund operating at a $3.5 million deficit. Transportation is operating at a $1.5 million deficit, which Fenner attributed to the state’s per-pupil funding formula not accounting for the district’s large geographical area.
“This creates a disparity between the revenue generated and the actual cost to transport those students through such a large district,” Fenner added, “and it results in our transportation fund continually operating in a deficit.”
Fenner detailed other fund balances, enrollment and capital projects that affect the district’s overall revenue and expenditures before the board approved the budget.
“This budget projection, while more accurate than the preliminary budget, is still very much an estimate,” Fenner said. “Revenues and expenditures are monitored throughout the year and compared to our budget projections.”
A more detailed breakdown of the district’s revised budget will become available on the district website at www.bemidji.k12.mn.us. The preliminary budget for 2023-2024 will be presented to the board in June.
The full meeting can be viewed on the Bemidji Area Schools YouTube channel.
The next regular board meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Monday, March 20, in the district board room.