School district weighs $900k staffing cut

BEMIDJI--As Bemidji Area Schools gets a handle on a projected $1.3 million budget deficit, school district administrators Monday said they've thus far identified about $900,000 in staffing reductions.


BEMIDJI-As Bemidji Area Schools gets a handle on a projected $1.3 million budget deficit, school district administrators Monday said they've thus far identified about $900,000 in staffing reductions.

Those potential reductions consist of a $600,000 net cut to spending on licensed employees-teachers, principals, etc.-and a $300,000 cut on non-licensed employees, district staff said Monday at a special School Board meeting. Board members took no formal vote or action to enact any of the cuts, but they're scheduled to formally consider them at their regular meeting on Monday, April 15.

Those spending cuts would mean, on aggregate, about 8-10 fewer full-time licensed staff, BAS Superintendent Tim Lutz told the Pioneer, and the equivalent of about four fewer full-time non-licensed staff. The school district is trying to accomplish that by not replacing employees who retire or quit, then spreading their duties to remaining employees, Lutz said.

"It doesn't look like we'll have to take any existing teacher who's tenured and say, 'Sorry, goodbye,'" he said. "As much as possible, we're trying to avoid getting rid of people who want to stay."

Last month, administrators told School Board members the district's projected revenue for the coming fiscal year would increase $529,000 to about $67.1 million and its projected expenses would increase by $1.2 million to about $68.4 million-a difference of about $1.3 million.


The adjustments described Monday would shrink the projected gap to about $400,000.

District leaders have methods other than staffing cuts to balance their budget, such as waiting a year to buy new curriculum or a school bus. They can also spend down their fund balance-the district's savings account, in essence-but both would be a temporary solution.

A longer-term option is to ask voters who live in the school district for a tax hike in the 2020 general election. Bemidji Area Schools' operating levy is about half the state average, according to district staff. Operating levies pay for day-to-day expenses in a school district, and Bemidji's brings in about $480 per student from taxpayers.

The school district could also try to bill Medicare for some of its special education and student support services, Lutz said, but that can be laborious. District leaders will consider those options over the next few months, Lutz said.

Drop in funding

There's a handful of factors pushing the district into the red.

Special education costs have increased significantly, but state and federal funding for that purpose has stayed about the same for years. Bemidji Area Schools spent about $2.9 million from its general fund on special education in 2010, according to documents supplied at Monday's meeting, and about $4.1 million in 2017.

When students opt to enroll in a charter school, they take per-pupil money from the state with them, but traditional school districts like Bemidji's are still responsible for transporting those students. It's one factor that contributes to the district's transportation deficit.


And that per-pupil funding formula has lagged behind inflation, education leaders across the state have said. In recent years, lawmakers in St. Paul have agreed to increase the amount of money that formula sends to school districts by 2 percent each fiscal year. Gov. Tim Walz's proposal to bump it up by by 3 percent next year would catch up a little, but it wouldn't be a cure-all for Bemidji's budget gap because the school district doesn't get all of its revenue that way.

In a commentary on the Pioneer's Editorial Page in late January, Lutz called for a 3 percent increase this year and next. The $1.3 million projected deficit assumes that lawmakers will approve a 2 percent funding hike for next year, which means the hoped-for 3 percent would reduce that figure.

"It's a revenue problem. It's not an expenditure problem," Chris Leinen, the district's director of business services, told board members Monday. "But the only tool in our toolbelt right now is to deal with expenses."

The new fiscal year encompasses the 2019-2020 school year.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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