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Legislators discuss education, workforce shortages and more at Bemidji Chamber event

Local legislators met with the public during a panel hosted by the Bemidji Chamber where participants discussed the challenges facing education and the preservation of lakes and forests.

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From left: District 5A Rep. Matt Bliss, R-Pennington; District 5 Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids; District 2B Rep. Steve Green, R-Fosston; and District 2 Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, answer questions during a legislative panel hosted by the Bemidji Chamber on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022, at the Sanford Center.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — Community members gathered for a legislative panel on Friday morning to discuss a range of topics of importance to area residents.

Hosted by the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, four members of the Minnesota Legislature attended the event at the Sanford Center, including District 2B Rep. Steve Green, District 5A Rep. Matt Bliss, District 2 Sen. Paul Utke and District 5 Sen. Justin Eichorn.

Matt Grossel, the representative for District 2A, was scheduled to be on the panel as well but did not attend.

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Around 50 people came out to talk about things ranging from education and workforce shortages to industry and mining during a legislative panel hosted by the Bemidji Chamber on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022, at the Sanford Center.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Topics ranged from the ongoing worker shortages and the state budget surplus to the importance of supporting vocational training and forest health.

One topic that was repeatedly touched on was education and the process of how Minnesota schools are allocated funding.

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Each of the speakers brought up how the current system can place schools outside of the metro area at a disadvantage.

“We get less money per kid than some of the metro districts,” said Eichorn, “and we’ve been working to change that.”

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District 5 Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, speaks about issues related to education at the state and local levels during a legislative panel hosted by the Bemidji Chamber on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022, at the Sanford Center. Eichorn is also the vice-chair of the state Education Finance and Policy committee and primarily focuses on K-12 education.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Eichorn also mentioned an initiative he is working on that has gained interest from both sides of the aisle. The project would involve getting teachers, school board members, Republicans and Democrats from every congressional district to discuss how the system used to fund schools can be improved.

“The formula is very complicated, the average school board member or superintendent can’t wrap their head around the formula,” said Eichorn. “There needs to be a better way to do it.”

The panel members also advocated for allowing school districts more flexibility and relaxing some of the state requirements and mandates that they viewed as weighing them down.

“The schools and the local districts know how to best take care of their students,” said Utke.

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District 2B Rep. Steve Green and District 2 Sen. Paul Utke, right, answer questions during a legislative panel hosted by the Bemidji Chamber on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022, at the Sanford Center.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Utke’s comments were echoed by Eichorn, who noted that allowing districts more flexibility was something that he and the other panel members would continue to work toward.

“For our part, we’ll do what we can to give school districts more freedom,” said Eichorn.

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This led to a discussion on vocation and technical education, which members of the community and all four legislators agreed needed more focus.

“We’ve allowed vocational-technical education to take a back seat,” said Jim Hess, who attended the event and is a former superintendent for Bemidji Area Schools.

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Former Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Jim Hess asks panelists about issues relating to education at the state and local levels during a legislative panel hosted by the Bemidji Chamber on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022, at the Sanford Center.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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Jim Bensen, a former BSU president and longtime community advocate, asks a question during a legislative panel hosted by the Bemidji Chamber on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022, at the Sanford Center.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Both Utke and Green connected this decrease in the numbers of vocational schools and lack of emphasis on the job opportunities they can provide to a shortage of qualified workers in related fields.

“We’re suffering employee shortages everywhere,” said Utke, who also talked about the importance of keeping young talent from moving away from the region.

Green and Bliss also stood by their opinion that unemployment benefits were partially to blame for the worker shortages.

“We’re enticing people out of the workforce,” said Green.

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District 5A Rep. Matt Bliss, R-Pennington, speaks about issues related to workforce shortages in the region during a legislative panel hosted by the Bemidji Chamber on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022, at the Sanford Center.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Protecting nature and quality of life

In contrast to these concerns, a number of community members brought up the nature and lakes of northern Minnesota as something that brings new people to the region and the need to protect these features.

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“It’s the quality of life that’s going to retain and recruit people in my view,” said attendee C.T. Marhula, who mentioned issues that put lakes in danger as particularly important. “If we lose the lakes we’re toast.”

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C.T. Marhula asks a question during a legislative panel hosted by the Bemidji Chamber on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022, at the Sanford Center.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

A specific concern Marhula discussed was an issue of ice houses dumping sewage before they pack up and leave a lake.

“People do come from other areas and don’t always treat our natural resources the way they should,” said Eichorn, who agreed that sewage and littering were problems, and hoped that education might help decrease these actions.

Utke, despite agreeing that these practices were a problem, suggested that for issues surrounding lake pollution and health community members reach out to their local and county officials before looking to state representatives.

“You don’t want us to start regulating that from down in St. Paul,” Utke said. “I would encourage you to work with your counties.”

Related to concerns of lakes, the preservation of forested land in the northern part of the state was also discussed.

Pete Aube, chair of the Minnesota Forest Resources Council, attended the event and spoke to the legislators on the need to increase tree nursery capacity.

“At one point we produced 12 million trees to plant in the state, now we’re down to two and a half,” Aube said, who brought up a resolution to plant over 1 million acres of trees by 2050 to help combat rising tree mortality in Minnesota.

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Pete Aube, chair of the Minnesota Forest Resources Council, speaks on issues surrounding forestry in northern Minnesota during a legislative panel hosted by the Bemidji Chamber on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022, at the Sanford Center.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Another resolution Aube mentioned to the council was the creation of a biofuel market in northern Minnesota using dying and dead trees. Aube attested that this could support decarbonizing, forest health and the economy all at once.

“We have the opportunity to create a biofuel industry in Minnesota,” Abue said, “utilizing the materials out there in residual form that is not being demanded by the present industry.”

Eichorn commended the Forest Resources Council for their work and their nonpartisan focus on what is best for forests.

“Your help is very important,” Eichorn said. “(People) might come for a job, but they end up staying for the quality of life.”

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Around 50 people came out to talk about things ranging from education and workforce shortages to industry and mining during a legislative panel hosted by the Bemidji Chamber on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022, at the Sanford Center.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Related Topics: GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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