The start to this school year certainly looks different from past years, but as always, it is great to have students back in our classrooms. It has been six months since students have been physically present in our school buildings. It is wonderful to have our staff and our students back again, even if it is under these very unusual conditions.
I have enjoyed watching as students have eagerly and proudly stepped off of school buses and run to our school buildings. I have also watched how students have been adjusting to wearing masks, to learning new procedures during the pandemic, and to accepting the new normal forced upon us all by COVID-19. The great start to the school year has reminded me of the wonderful resilience that children possess. I am very pleased to report that, thanks to this resilience, our first week of school went very well.
I am extremely proud of our students, teachers and staff as they adapt to this new normal. I am grateful to the ISD 31 staff who have spent countless hours preparing and planning for the safe start to the school year under very unique and uncertain circumstances and during a time when the landscape is constantly shifting from one day to the next.
I want to take a moment to express my deep appreciation to the entire community for their ongoing support during these difficult times. We will continue to focus on the safety and education of our students to make sure they receive the support that they need this year.
As we move forward, we are also working on the financial health of the district. Like many rural school districts, Bemidji Area Schools is facing financial stressors that will leave us with a budget deficit in the near future. Our primary source of financial support, funding from the State of Minnesota, isn’t keeping up with the cost of inflation. Many state mandates remain unfunded. Further, we have had to absorb the additional costs of COVID-19 safety measures.
As the school board evaluated these financial changes, it became clear the district needed a multi-pronged approach to address this problem. First, the district continues to manage spending to ensure we are making wise decisions with our resources. Second, we are working with lawmakers to push the state to meet its obligations to fully fund public education. Third, we are intensifying our focus on keeping students and attracting new ones to our district in order to retain the state funding tied to enrollment.
Finally, the school board is seeking an increase in the district’s operating levy to help sustain current class sizes, services and staffing levels. On the Nov. 3 ballot, voters will be asked to revoke the current $180 per pupil levy and replace it with a $460 per pupil levy. The net increase of $280 per pupil will produce $1.53 million per year, which will help reduce the projected budget deficit by 72% over the next three years.
Without additional funding, we will be forced to make difficult cuts in staffing, services and programs. Although the school board has made no decisions yet, this could include larger class sizes, diminished building supply budgets, fewer support services and course options, while limiting participation in sports.
To help residents make an informed decision on the referendum, the district has put together a website -- BEmidjiBOLD.org -- where you can learn more about the needs of our district, the plan to solve our budget deficit and how to vote. If you have any questions or suggestions, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (218) 333-3100.
Tim Lutz is superintendent of Bemidji Area Schools. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.