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PIONEER EDITORIAL: Our schools, community need our help

While the details of the budget breakdown might seem complicated, the root of the issue is simple. The education system is underfunded, so our schools need help.

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Pioneer graphic

Writing this editorial feels like deja vu. Here we are, one year later, pleading with the community once again to consider voting “yes” on the Bemidji Area Schools referendum next week.

Covering the debate surrounding the district’s budget crisis and referendum decision has been a wild ride for those of us in the Pioneer newsroom.

We have spent countless hours in board meetings, poring over data, talking to people out and about in the community and creating stories to help educate our readers on the decisions we all face.

RELATED: A recap of Bemidji Area Schools upcoming referendum

Separating speculation from fact has been a major problem, as some people have decided what the issue is in their minds, regardless of whether it’s based in reality or not. This is a dangerous way to go through life, and so I want to take this opportunity to once again help shed some light on the facts of this convoluted situation.

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In his monthly column published Oct. 23 , Superintendent Tim Lutz touched on a few of the issues which led up to the school district’s predicament.

The main culprit being that for the past two decades the Minnesota Legislature has not kept up with inflation. Because of this, Bemidji schools missed out on $3 million in funding last year alone.

Lutz has also explained at length how schools are mandated by the state to provide programs such as special education, food service and busing. But in turn, the state doesn’t fully fund these requirements. This led the district to lose more than $4 million in special education and around $750,000 in busing services just last year, requiring the district to once again pull funds from its reserves.

While the details of the budget breakdown might seem complicated, the root of the issue is simple. The education system is underfunded, so our schools need help.

The uproar this small tax increase has caused in our community has left me shocked time and time again. Costs are increasing around us at an alarming rate, so why is it so wild to think that the schools would also need to keep up with inflation?

If we want to have a thriving community in the midst of government shortfalls, isn’t it up to the community to rise up and fill the gap?

Increasing the existing referendum authority of $180 per pupil to $460 will require an estimated tax rate of 0.07384% for taxes payable in 2022. Now, I dislike tax increases as much as the next person. But the question to ask yourself here is if the investment is worth the reward.

My husband and I bought our first house three years ago here in Bemidji and our tax increase, should the referendum pass, would be about $45 for the year.

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And if we break it down on a personal level and I decide when I go to the ballot box next week that a $3.75 a month investment isn’t worth it, the community is going to be facing the consequences.

However, if I choose to vote in favor of the increase, major budget cuts can be avoided, my friends who are teachers in the district will not have to worry about their class sizes increasing or fear losing their jobs, and the hundreds of students in our district will have better resources available to them for years to come.

So, in my budget analysis, that small investment is worth the long-term rewards.

Now, if you are still unconvinced, here are a few more thoughts on the matter from my perspective:

  • The school district cut back and did everything in its power to avoid a referendum last year, but in the midst of increased adversity were left without any other options.

  • Despite the district’s transparency in what would happen if the referendum didn’t pass, the community responded with a resounding “no” with the measure failing in November 2020 after it received 11,725 “no” votes and 7,851 “yes” votes.

  • When the reality of the budget crisis started to kick in last winter, members of the community (including those who voted against the referendum) were then in an uproar over the cuts that would have to be made -- which were only caused by the referendum’s failure.

  • After attempting to adjust schedules, closing Central Elementary , cutting staff and more, no one was happy with any of the choices and each received its share of backlash from all sides, no matter what the board tried to do.

  • This led the district to send out surveys to everyone in the community for the public to chime in on the topic. A total of 3,193 people responded to the survey , representing 18% of the district's voters, with the majority saying they would support a referendum authority of $430.

  • So, here we are again, going for another referendum in a desperate attempt to halt the negative impacts to our district due to budget cuts.

Meanwhile, the only “solution” I have seen mentioned from the opposition in the streams of Facebook comments and in letters to the editor we have received has basically been that Superintendent Lutz needs to take a pay cut. As if his well-earned salary is the sole cause of the district being millions of dollars in the hole.
One person argued that staff takes up 80% of the district’s budget as if that was a bad thing. The fact is, staff will always be one of the largest costs in a budget, no matter how low the salaries are.

And in this case, the “staff” are the ones teaching your children day in and day out, wiping their tears, helping with their struggles, putting up with their bad attitudes and spending countless hours teaching them skills to live an incredible life and make this community thrive.

I wholeheartedly believe we should demand and expect our local school district to make wise and effective use of any tax money that comes their way. But after being inundated with data and hearing so many sides of this issue for the past two years, I can honestly say that I think our school district is doing the right thing in asking for this money.

And if you don’t agree with recent policies the board has made, as Jeff Lind said at the last school board meeting , don’t punish the students by voting “no” on this referendum. In his words, "If you want to punish the school board, vote us out of office.” It’s not the school board that will suffer if this fails, it’s the children and their teachers who will pay the price.

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So, when you go to vote on Tuesday, Nov. 2, please keep these thoughts in mind and think about whether the investment you're going to make is worth the long-lasting reward this community can reap. And if not, are you willing for our district to face the consequences?

Annalise Braught is a photographer and editor at the Pioneer. She can be reached at (218) 333-9796 or abraught@bemidjipioneer.com .

Opinion by Annalise Braught
Annalise is the editor and a photographer at the Bemidji Pioneer. She is a Mass Communication graduate from Bemidji State University. Her favorite pastime is exploring the great outdoors and capturing its natural beauty on camera. Contact Annalise at (218) 333-9796, (218) 358-1990 or abraught@bemidjipioneer.com.
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