I would like to start my November column with a word of gratitude for the many community members who supported the Bemidji Area Schools operating referendum this fall.

I know that many people were disappointed that, for a second consecutive year, the majority of voters at the polls declined a levy increase that would have supported Bemidji Area Schools with necessary funding for the next 10 years. The large number of people who reached out to me through emails, texts and phone calls have reminded me that the vote was very close and that many people in our community still support our schools.

Unfortunately, district leaders must now determine where cuts will be needed to balance the budget, just as we did over several months this past year. The decisions will be difficult to make, but budget reductions will be a necessity again if the district is to stay out of a deficit spending situation. Much work will be needed over the next four or five months to stabilize the budget.

Beginning in December, the board will direct district administration to make recommendations regarding cuts to staffing and programs. We will need to conduct analyses of the costs of programs as compared to their benefits. We will also need to hold difficult discussions and conversations about ways to cut additional costs in a budget that has already been slashed to the point that there are very few budget items left to eliminate.

We will need to examine policies such as our class size policy in light of the need to reduce the district’s expenditure budget. We will examine bus routes and walk zones around our schools. In addition, we will examine administrative costs, building budgets, activities fees, and the affordability and viability of certain extra-curricular activities.

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Decisions must be made in light of our shrinking revenue budget amid growing expenditures caused by underfunded mandates, state funding that does not keep up with inflationary pressures and a referendum question that did not pass.

There is a lot of work to be done over the next four or five months.

While we are embroiled in budget and policy discussions, we will continue to work on keeping our students and employees safe during a time when Minnesota is leading the nation in increased cases of COVID-19 per capita. I have been concerned to see our local two-week rolling case numbers rising sharply again as cold weather comes to our area.

Despite these increasing numbers, we are keeping the virus at bay in our schools thanks to the many mitigation strategies we are employing every day.

Unlike many schools across the state, we have not needed to shift into distance learning mode due to outbreaks, because what we are doing with masks, social distancing, the cohorting of student groups and cleaning is working. Another strategy that is working is our work with COVID vaccination clinics. The school district coordinated with Sanford Health public health last week to support vaccination clinics for students.

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In addition, ISD 31 is working with the Minnesota Department of Health and at the Bemidji Middle School on Saturday, Nov. 20. Parents may bring their children to the school anytime between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. to receive their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. The second dose will be offered during a clinic at Bemidji Middle School on Saturday, Dec. 11.

These clinics for 5- to 11-year-old children are an important tool because this age group is currently the highest demographic of Minnesotans with COVID infections. Parents and guardians may use this link to make an appointment for the vaccine clinics: my.primary.health/r/bemidji-area-schools?registration_type=ages+5-11.

I am very proud of the efforts of Bemidji Area Schools to keep students in school and to keep our schools safe and healthy since the beginning of the pandemic. As I’ve said from the beginning, “What we are doing is working!”

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