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UPDATED: Bemidji school board discusses new COVID requirements, Jeff Haack announces resignation

While Monday’s Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education meeting had several surprises in store -- ranging from a proposed vaccine/testing mandate for district employees to potential budget cuts in response to the failed referendum -- the resignation of longtime board member Jeff Haack provided one last development for the night.

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BEMIDJI -- While Monday’s Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education meeting had several surprises in store -- ranging from a proposed vaccine/testing mandate for district employees to potential budget cuts in response to the failed referendum -- the resignation of longtime board member Jeff Haack provided one last development for the night.

During the “once around the table” portion of the Nov. 15 meeting, which allows each board member to voice their thoughts on otherwise untouched topics, Haack took the opportunity to announce his resignation following his updates on the Bemidji 31 Education Foundation fund and coach shortage.

“My life gets busier all the time and this board meeting is my last one,” Haack said. “I realized with this referendum that (failed), maybe I don’t represent my constituency very well.”

Haack has been on the school board since 2012 and most recently won reelection last year when he received 9,758 votes -- 28% of the total.

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Jeff Haack

Haack said his primary motivation for resigning is that he wants to have more time to focus on his family and the foundation fund, which he helps lead along with board member Carol Johnson.

“I really want to focus more of my time and efforts on my kiddos and this foundation and there’s only so much of me to go around,” he added. “So, effective at the end of our closed session and adjournment, that’s my resignation.”

Other board members added to their closing remarks by thanking Haack for his service and the pleasure they had working alongside him.

“Jeff, thank you. I hear you in terms of leaving and with supporting kids, time goes fast,” Board Chair Ann Long Voelkner said.

A moment of levity came when Haack detailed his oldest child in middle school being 5-foot-10 and out of concern of needing more basketball coaches, Long Voelkner recommended Haack’s child to be a coach.

Superintendent Tim Lutz shared the same sentiment following Haack’s sudden announcement.

“Mr. Haack, thank you for your service. I’m going to miss working with you,” Lutz said. “I appreciate your astute observations of data and your questions. You will be missed.”

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Johnson thanked Haack and added, “I look forward to our continued work with our foundation which we started from the ground up and is moving ahead very strongly.”

Haack detailed earlier in his closing remarks that the Bemidji 31 Education Foundation Fund awarded a total of eight grants valued at $4,519 in its third year of awarding funds, which are used to fund various classroom projects and resources.

Referendum review

Prior to Haack’s resignation, the board took considerable time reviewing the failed second attempt at an operating levy increase for the district during the Nov. 2 special election.

A total of 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.

Had it passed, the $180 referendum authority would have been revoked and replaced with an authority of $460 per pupil with taxes payable in 2022 and applicable for 10 years unless otherwise revoked or reduced.

Lutz stated that recommendations for budget cuts will be made beginning in December and will range from class size increases, changing bus routes and walking zones, adjusting administrative costs, shifting building budgets and changing activity fees.

“The district will now need to determine, once again, where cuts will be needed to stabilize the budget, the same process ISD 31 conducted last year,” Lutz said. “It’s too early at this time to predict or say anything to alleviate any concerns or anxieties.”

Student representatives Maya Lindquist and Savannah Haugen spoke to the board about student concerns and rumors as they relate to the referendum not passing and how it will affect students’ opportunities.

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“Students, at least in the high school, are very worried about next year,” Lindquist said. “There are a lot of rumors going around, and I think it’s important to keep students as up-to-date as possible as decisions are being made in order to calm some of those rumors.”

Public participation involved four speakers, two of which spoke against the district’s second attempt at a referendum vote.

“After the referendum vote in 2020, the district posted a message that they were going to respect the vote. That is not what happened,” Keith Whiting said. “The fact that we had to come back a year later for a special vote that the district wasted money on proves that you did not respect the vote. I hope the district will respect the vote this time.”

Other sentiments during public participation included the board needing to revise its masking policy from a mandate to a recommendation and increasing public participation from three-minute time limits to six minutes.

Bemidji Coop Assistant Manager Guy Drevlow spoke about supplying propane-powered buses for the district and cited a statistic that less than 5% of all buses need to be plugged in during sub-zero temperatures.

“That alone, in a district similar to ours that uses around 100 buses, saves over $30,000 by not plugging buses in,” Drevlow said. “That alone would help the district with their money issues and financial woes.”

COVID requirements

Human Resources Director Jordan Hickman was the point person for much of the meeting during discussion of an emergency temporary standard published by the Department of Justice Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Friday, Nov. 5, in the federal register.

This standard would mandate that employers with 100 or more employees be given two options regarding vaccination and testing: a full vaccine requirement for all employees, or giving employees the choice to be vaccinated or be subject to testing once every seven days.

The Minnesota state plan under the federal OSHA, or MNOSHA, is allowed to be more restrictive, but not less restrictive, than the federal guidelines for both public and private employers.

School districts would also still be allowed to impose additional restrictions specific to their COVID transmission rates and hospitalizations.

Hickman relayed that most provisions need to be implemented by Monday, Dec. 6, leaving a rather slim timeline for implementation following the standard’s publishing date.

“The primary components of those provisions is that employers adopt a policy and decide which of those two options are going to be implemented and obtain verification of vaccination status from every employee within the district,” Hickman said.

Despite being a federal requirement, Haack spoke against any type of vaccine or testing requirement.

“We all talk about slippery slopes and I wouldn’t support either one of (these two options),” Haack said. “I know OSHA is going to make us do it. In my day job, I will be subject to this. The difference is that nobody asked for my opinion then, and I get to say ‘no’ now.”

Board member Jeff Lind touched on driving employees away from the district similar to other industries where mandated vaccines and testing are implemented.

“It really puts us between a rock and a hard place,” Lind said. “Other people are leaving good-paying jobs and going to places where there are under 100 employees so they don’t have to comply with these mandates. I would assume we would see that same migration of employees that we can’t afford to lose.”

“But as was stated earlier, we really don’t have a choice,” Johnson said.

Haack took a moment before stating, “There’s always a choice. If every district in the state said ‘no’ is OSHA really going to fine every school in the state thousands of dollars a day? Now in this case, we will say ‘yes’ and comply. But, there’s always a choice.”

Following much more discussion, the board voted 5-1, with Haack voting against, to approve the first reading of this policy.

Other agenda items

The board voted unanimously to revise six district policies to comply with legislative changes and the Minnesota School Boards Association Model Policy.

Policies that were reviewed included Harassment and Violence, Internet Acceptable Use and Safety, Equal Educational Opportunity, Protection and Privacy of Pupil Records, Public and Private Personnel Data, and the School Weapons Policy.

They also unanimously passed a resolution to establish combined polling places for multiple precincts and designate hours during which the polling places will remain open for voting for school district elections not held on the day of a statewide election.

District Business Director Krisi Fenner emphasized that these polling places must be established every year per legislation adopted in 2017, and that it does not relate to the referendum special election.

Another unanimous vote came with the acceptance of a $15,000 donation from Sanford Health to the district’s Angel Fund, which supports unpaid student meal debt. A drum kit valued at $700 donated to the Bemidji High School band by Jim Hess was also approved.

Lutz plugged some upcoming events including two vaccine clinics open to children ages 5-11 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Nov. 20 and Dec. 11 at the Bemidji Middle School. The two-dose pediatric Pfizer vaccine will be offered free of charge. Those who receive the first dose on Nov. 20 can get the second dose on Dec. 11.

A parent or guardian must accompany their child through the vaccination process. Parents can make an appointment for their children by visiting my.primary.health/r/bemidji-area-schools?registration_type=ages+5-11 .

Once the meeting adjourned, the board transitioned to a separate room for a closed negotiation strategy session.

The next regular board meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 20, in the district board room.

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