During one of the most challenging years in public education, I am grateful for opportunities to recognize those who serve us so well in the school district. February is a month that honors many who work in the Bemidji Area Schools. For example, the week of Feb. 22-26 happens to be both School Board Recognition Week and School Bus Driver Appreciation Week.

While I believe it is important to appreciate our co-workers every day, it is also nice to have official days or weeks when we can express our appreciation for the important work our colleagues perform. During the last couple of weeks of very frigid winter weather, I am mindful of how our bus drivers often operate long routes while carrying the most precious of cargoes every school day.

Bemidji Area Schools has one of the largest geographic districts in Minnesota. If one were to take a map of the school district boundaries and overlay it on top of the metro area, it would cover a number of suburbs ranging from Albertville in the northwest to Shakopee in the southeast, and all the way east to Stillwater and southeast to Rosemount. The district is so large, at 824 square miles, it would cover most of the state of Rhode Island!

In short, we drive over one million miles a year with 74 school buses. Our drivers often begin their routes in the dark and finish them in the dark, and they do so while building caring relationships with their student riders.

The job is all the more challenging during the winter when mornings are cold and dark. However, the ISD 31 transportation staff, from Transportation Coordinator Rob Wicklund and his crew of mechanics, to the drivers, safety and special education coordinators, and routers, all work together as a great team to deliver students to school and back home again every day -- safely. It truly is remarkable!

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During these cold months, I am sometimes asked why we start on time rather than delay school by two hours. This is a common question that takes some explaining to answer.

In short, it is often safer to start on time rather than delay two hours, because temperatures often drop to their lowest just before sunrise around 8 am. When we pick students up at the regular route times, they are in warm buses by the time temperatures drop even lower two hours later.

Also, the wind may be stronger two hours later making wind-chill factors worse. When we delay school, parents often need to leave for work before students are picked up by the delayed buses, making students more vulnerable while home alone waiting for a bus.

Finally, because some bus drivers have other jobs where they need to be at 9 a.m., and a delay means we need to employ more substitute drivers who do not know the routes or the students as well as the regular route drivers, thus adding to the potential for something to go wrong.

As you can see, we put a lot of thought and planning into every decision related to the weather, and we always put the safety of students first. The transportation team at ISD 31 truly deserves our recognition and appreciation!

I would be remiss if I did not also acknowledge the school board who will be recognized officially next week, and rightly so. Making policy and budget decisions is very challenging work, which has become much more difficult during the pandemic and during a time when the budget is truly strained.

Every member of the ISD 31 school board is a professional who dedicates his or her time to fully understanding how to fulfill their duties as trustees serving the broad interests of the public.

I am grateful for the dedication, commitment and partnership of each member of the school board, and I greatly enjoy the work of leading the school district with their help. Their support makes my job enjoyable and meaningful despite the many challenges we are facing this year.

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