It is that time of the year again -- back to school! Unfortunately, the COVID rate numbers are on the rise again just in time for the start of the school year, which has our district team working very hard to make sure we are ready to open our schools safely.

It remains to be seen how the pandemic will impact our district this year, but our goal is to maintain in-person learning all year long. The health and safety of our students remain our utmost priority, so we will continue to monitor the recommendations of public health officials and the Minnesota Department of Education.

It is also our goal to remain solvent and to keep a balanced budget, which continues to be a very big challenge. While the state legislature did approve a 2.45% increase in funding for school districts this year, that still will not be sufficient to operate our district when considering how state funding for schools has been lagging for two decades.

Like many school districts, we have been experiencing higher costs due to mandates that the state requires but does not fund completely. As a result, ISD 31 will face another budget deficit this coming school year.

Recognizing this, the district is taking steps to eliminate that shortfall. One of those steps may be making additional cuts to programs and classrooms next year. Another solution is asking voters to approve an increase in the district's operating levy, a levy that is the lowest among similar-sized districts in the state.

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To prepare for another referendum, we surveyed our community this spring to see how much support there would be within our community for another operating referendum. We also asked people for suggestions on areas where the district could cut costs. I was pleased when a clear majority of people responded that they would rather see another referendum than see more cuts within our district.

The district currently has a small levy of $180 per student, which will expire in a few years. Like last year, we are asking to sunset that levy and roll it back into a new 10-year levy totaling $460 per student, which would be an increase of $280 per student.

In our survey, I was pleased to see that 61% of respondents said they would support this increase as a solution to balancing our budget and avoiding additional cuts. This new levy would provide the district with $1.5 million dollars each year over the next 10 years.

The COVID pandemic really hit the district’s budget hard last year, and we had to make historic cuts of $4 million to stabilize our budget. Fortunately, we have received COVID relief funds this year, but those funds are earmarked for specific goals and will not be enough to sustain the district’s budget over the long term.

Nor do those funds address the underlying issues of state underfunding that plague all schools in Minnesota. If we are successful at passing an operating levy, these COVID relief funds will last just long enough to make it until the new levy kicks in during the 2022-2023 fiscal year.

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 to prevent the losses of any of the great programs students have enjoyed over the years. The levy will help us stabilize our budget so that we will not need to make the cuts that we made this past year.

Ultimately, it will be your vote on Nov. 2 that will determine the future of our school district. A strong school district is necessary to support a vibrant and growing community.

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