At Bemidji Area Schools, we have had an incredibly busy summer so far as we continue preparing for the new school year while also planning for our long-term future.

As we approach the new school year, I continue to receive questions about our plans to operate this fall. We are looking at new ways to adapt to the challenges of the pandemic, while maintaining critical services and support for students. For example, our dedicated staff continues to serve 2,400 to 3,000 meals daily throughout the summer. We also continue to serve students through summer activities as safely as we can.

At the moment, it is simply too soon to determine what a return to school will look like for our students. While we hope to return to classrooms like normal, all Minnesota school districts eagerly await Gov. Walz and the Minnesota Department of Education’s directives regarding fall plans. Regardless of government direction, our top priority will always continue to be student and staff safety as we strive to provide the best education possible.

In tandem with planning for this fall, we are also planning for the long term financial health of the district. Recently, I held a series of virtual meetings with school district staff to discuss the district’s finances and next steps as we explore the need for an operating referendum. I found the conversations were constructive and positive. More importantly, we came together as a team to reinforce our ongoing commitment to provide our students with a dynamic and supportive learning environment.

However, like many rural school districts, we have been facing difficult economic headwinds that have left us with future budget deficits. The state of Minnesota is responsible for the majority of school district funding, but it has failed to keep up with the cost of inflation over the past decade. Further, the state's funding formula doesn't fully recognize unfunded mandates and fails to provide the necessary dollars to support those requirements. As a case in point, the state formula that provides funding for busing fell short by $750,000 last year.

As a result, we will be forced to make difficult cuts in staffing, services and programs without some kind of solution. That is why we are taking action on several fronts.

First, we must continue to press lawmakers to meet the state’s obligations to public education and fully fund state mandates. Closer to home, we are working to manage our budget as efficiently as possible to mitigate rising costs in transportation and other services. Further, we want to attract and keep students enrolled in Bemidji Area Schools since state funding is linked to a district’s enrollment count.

Finally, the school board is exploring an increase in the district operating levy to help us sustain current class sizes, services and staffing levels. The levy also would support career advancement opportunities like technical and vocational training and the Bemidji Career Academies at the high school.

Similar to the staff sessions about our district’s future, I will be holding a series of digital conversations with district parents. I look forward to hearing from parents! Details of these events can be found on the district’s Facebook page at www.Facebook.com/BemidjiAreaSchools/events. Your voice is important to our direction as a district as we explore the need for an operating referendum.

We will do all we can to keep the community informed of our plans, both for the start of school as well as the district’s future. If you have any questions or suggestions, you can email or call me.

Go Jacks!

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