From the very beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been deeply appreciative of our community’s cohesive and proactive response. We created a brand new system of distance learning for students and literally turned thousands of homes into classrooms. We should all be proud of our successes.

To our devoted teachers, students, parents and staff: Thank you for embracing our distance and online learning models. Your patience and positivity have paid dividends as we all continue to adapt to new digital demands. We also need to thank those involved in our partnerships with Bemidji State University and Sanford Health, collaborations that have helped keep us informed about health and safety and supported our homework helpline efforts.

Despite these challenging times, my optimism in Bemidji’s future has never faltered.

It remains to be seen how the pandemic will impact our district in the long term. The health and safety of our students remain our utmost priority, so we will continue to monitor the recommendations of public health officials and requirements of the State of Minnesota.

Regardless of the landscape when school starts in the fall, we must also assess our school finances. We, like many rural school districts, have been experiencing higher costs due to mandates that the state requires but doesn’t fund. The state’s current funding formula doesn’t fully recognize these unfunded mandates and does not keep up. As a result, Independent School District 31 faces a budget deficit. The distance-learning infrastructure and other costs associated with COVID-19 have put additional pressure on district finances.

Minnesota’s public schools are constitutionally funded through three distinctive funding sources: 5 %to 6% of funds come from the federal government, 12% to 13% from local funds provided by area taxpayers, and the rest from state aid appropriated by the state legislature.

Recognizing this, the district has identified four steps to eliminate our budget deficit:

  • Managing our spending by managing our costs and increasing efficiencies.

  • Working with state legislators to secure increased per-student funding, fund the state’s mandates and fund all schools fairly.

  • Attract and keep local students in order to keep state funding dollars in our district.

  • Ask voters to approve an increase in the district's operating levy, a levy which is the lowest among our peer districts.

None of these steps, alone, will solve a budget deficit. These steps must operate in tandem to be successful.

We want to ensure our schools serve our students well, which is why the district is exploring an increase in its operating levy to help sustain current class sizes and staffing levels. In addition, the levy would help us sustain new technology and career advancement opportunities like technical and vocational training. Since Bemidji’s last operating levy passed in 2012, neighboring school districts have voted to fund increases, leaving our district’s operating levy significantly lower than our neighbors.

Later this summer, the school board will make a decision regarding asking community members to approve an operating levy. Before then, we are looking for your input. I encourage all residents to reach out to me with their thoughts and ideas.

Ultimately, it will be your voice that guides our school board members as they consider how best to address the needs of our schools. Much work remains to fully address the needs of our school buildings and students. But with guidance and a “strength in numbers” spirit, I’m confident we can come up with forward-thinking solutions that prepare our students for successful futures.

You can email me at tim_lutz@isd31.net or give me a call at (218) 333-3100. I promise we will do all we can to keep you informed about the need, the process and the emerging solutions.

Tim Lutz is superintendent of Bemidji Area Schools. He can be reached via email at tim_lutz@isd31.net.