As you may know, the Bemidji school district is seeking an operating referendum this fall.
After our operating referendum was not successful last year, we found ourselves in the difficult position of making historic budget cuts. While making those difficult cuts, many people told me they hadn’t realized how severe our budgetary problems were. Many others were so disappointed the referendum didn’t pass, they sent checks to the district in the amount their taxes would have been if the levy had passed.
In response to this support, and realizing our budget issues weren’t resolved, we reached out to district stakeholders with a survey asking whether the school district should try another operating referendum or continue making cuts. Over 3,000 survey responses came back to the district office with a clear majority of our community indicating support for another operating referendum rather than more cuts to teachers and programs.
We also asked how much an increase our community would support and were very encouraged by the response. Sixty-one percent of respondents said they would support a referendum amount of $460 per student. Since the district currently has a levy set at $180 per student, the new levy amounts to an additional $280 per student.
I’m grateful our community has indicated this is a worthwhile investment in our schools, our children and community. A successful referendum will not only support ISD 31, but Bemidji’s charter and private schools will also benefit directly by receiving more funding for their programs. So, the new levy will benefit a great number of students in our area schools.
In layman’s terms, the ballot asks whether or not the district may “sunset” the existing $180-per-student referendum and bring it back for a fresh 10 years while combining it with a new $280-per-student levy, for a total operating levy of $460 per student.
Many people have asked me why ISD 31 needs local funding support. Bemidji school district is not alone in dealing with budget problems. Many Minnesota school districts are seeking an increase in referendum support this year. The problem is twofold: state funding is not keeping up with increasing inflationary pressures, and the state does not fully fund many of the mandates required of school districts.
For the past two decades, the Minnesota legislature has fallen behind the inflation index. Had the state kept up with inflation, Bemidji schools would have received an additional $3 million in funding last year. That shortage explains why the district has made severe budget cuts in recent years.
Compounding the problem, schools are mandated to provide programs such as special education, food service, and busing which are not fully funded. These are important programs that our students need, but they are expensive, and the state funds schools only partially for these services. We lost over $ 4 million in special education and around $750,000 in busing services last year, requiring the district to pull funds from its reserves.
I am pleased to say the great majority of our budget goes toward the educational services our students need and deserve. But, when our costs are greater than the revenue we receive, we are forced either to make cuts or seek funding support from our community through a referendum.
Finally, while I appreciate all of the support from the community, I do realize there are people opposed to the referendum, as well as some interesting rumors I would like to refute: in ISD 31, we do not have granite countertops anywhere in the district; we do not indoctrinate our students with Marxism; and we do not teach Critical Race Theory, which is a graduate-college course. Instead, what we do is fulfill our mission: to empower each learner to succeed in our diverse and changing world.
It is my firm belief that our community supports education and will invest in the future of our students. If the referendum passes, you have my word that we will continue to direct those funds where they belong: to the education and support of our students. Our students deserve it!
Tim Lutz is superintendent of Bemidji Area Schools. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.