Referendum and quarantine take center stage at Bemidji school board meeting

·8 min read

Oct. 19—BEMIDJI — It was business as usual at the Bemidji Area Schools meeting on Monday as the board discussed the upcoming referendum vote, the district's COVID status, shortening quarantine periods and a proposal for a possible lease of Central Elementary School.

Superintendent Tim Lutz took some time to run through the district's budget situation highlighting that the state not keeping up with inflation and underfunded mandates are two culprits for the district's budget deficit.

"The state of Minnesota, like other states, is not required to fully fund its mandates," Lutz said before detailing a special education shortfall of $4.5 million and transportation shortfall of $750,000 each year for the past few years.

He shared a graph detailing the district's expenditures versus revenue, which projects the district having $71.7 million in revenue and $75.3 million in expenditures by the 2024-2025 school year, a $3.6 million deficit.

With the district's three rounds of ESSER funding, used to address learning loss due to the pandemic, Lutz said the district could avoid that much of a deficit for another year. However, he emphasized that the gap is still there and that the ESSER funds don't address the underlying funding issues.

would replace the current authority of $180 and provide the district with a total of $2.5 million per year for the next 10 years, or a net increase of $1.5 million a year for the school's budget.

RELATED: A recap of Bemidji Area Schools upcoming referendum

If this per-pupil rate is voter-approved, Lutz detailed that the district could keep "manageable class sizes, not have to make program cuts, keep extracurricular offerings, keep our schools open and more."

Lutz also dispelled rumors that the district took out a loan that is now due and reminded the board that the district is simply falling behind in funding like other school districts.

"The funding just hasn't caught up and it's not because we're being careless with our spending," Lutz said. "Mandates to do certain things are in place and we have to do them, but we're underfunded."

District Business Director Krisi Fenner shared the district's unreserved fund balance at the end of the 2020 fiscal year was $1.6 million, while $7 million is considered their "healthy" target for funds.

Early voting can be done at the district office from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. until Nov. 2 with a valid ID. Community members can also visit pollfinder.sos.state.mn.us to find their polling places for the Tuesday, Nov. 2, special election.

Fenner proposed a resolution to approve additional election judges in case of last-minute vacancies and to keep fully staffed polling places.

The district approved a list of judges at the Sept. 20 board meeting, and with caution of the county's COVID transmission levels, the board unanimously passed adding backup judges from a qualified pool of candidates.

The quarantine question

Following the Sept. 20 board meeting, board member Jeff Haack proposed adding a resolution to Monday's agenda that would shorten the district's quarantine period for students and staff.

In September, Haack detailed his concern regarding the number of student absences related to the 14-day quarantine period of students who were symptomatic or tested positive for COVID.

Having proposed an amendment to the district's "decision tree" at the Aug. 25 special meeting, which shortened the quarantine period from 14 to 10 days assuming an exposed student was still asymptomatic by day 10, Haack was in favor of shortening quarantine to seven days.

"We're experiencing a large number of student absences, anywhere from 750 to 1,000 per week from quarantine," Haack mentioned during a discussion with Dr. David Wilcox, vice president medical officer at Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota. He also later added that if the current student absence numbers had been seen a couple of years ago it would have been a major topic of discussion, and now it seems to appear as normal, which he found concerning.

Wilcox described shortening the 14-day quarantine period to either a 10 or seven-day period as a "calculated risk," mentioning that by day five of quarantine, 80% of people will show symptoms.

Several board members expressed that they'd feel more comfortable shortening to a 10-day quarantine period or waiting to shorten the period until Beltrami County transmission levels decline.

Board member Gabriel Warren was in favor of a 10-day quarantine while adding in the flexibility for the district to return back to the 14-day if transmission levels dictated the need.

Human Resources Director Jordan Hickman reminded the board that the only situation where a 14-day quarantine is needed is if the close contact is a member of the same household where isolation isn't possible.

"In the fall, the board's action was to use the shortened (seven or 10-day) quarantine period," Hickman said. "Most of our quarantines are the seven or 10-day. That's the vast majority."

The district's current seven-day quarantine applies to a close contact who tests negative for COVID when taken on day five of their quarantine, while a 10-day applies to a close contact who remains asymptomatic by the end of that timeframe without a test.

Haack initially made a motion to change the district's mention of "10-day" and "14-day" in their decision tree to say "seven-day," which board member Jeff Lind seconded.

Following further board discussion, he amended his motion to change all mentions of "14-day" to "10-day," with Lind keeping his second.

Haack and Lind were the only two to vote in favor of the potential 10-day quarantine with board members Warren, Carol Johnson, Sarah Young and Ann Long-Voelkner voting against, keeping the current quarantine procedure in place.

The board never returned to Warren's suggestion of including the reinstatement of the 14-day quarantine, which Warren credited as the reason for his "no" vote.

Future plans for Central?

Public participation included more anti-masking opinions from three of the four speakers who were present, though one proposed the possible leasing of Central Elementary School, which was closed earlier this year as a cost-saving measure.

Anna Wallin, co-founder of the Aurora Waasakone Community of Learners charter school, shared a letter detailing AWCL's interest in leasing the building for two years as a means to help the district offset its budget deficit and to keep money within local schools.

"Our proposal is to lease the playground and gym space this school year, '21-'22, for a minimum of $10,000, and to lease the entire Central school building for two years, the '22-'23 and '23-'24 school years, for a minimum of $600,000," Wallin said at the podium.

Not being a resolution, the board did not have further discussion or vote on this, though it will likely be included as a measure in a future board meeting.

AWCL opened in 2019 in the Beltrami County Social Services Building and serves 120 students, 91 of which are residents of the Bemidji Area School District.

Other agenda items

The board welcomed student representative Savannah Haugen who reported on student need for recorded lectures and virtual meetings for when students are in quarantine and need to make up missing work.

The district hasn't had Google Meets in place this school year, though Long-Voelkner said it's something to keep in mind moving forward since those were heavily used last school year.

The board unanimously approved several resolutions including declaring a property surplus of the Community Education Building, now under a six-month listing agreement with Grimes Realty.

A field trip request for the High School Music Department to Washington D.C. April 2-8, was unanimously approved and includes a request for student insurance to be required allowing for a full refund should the trip be canceled.

The board also approved the Indian Policies and Procedures laid out from the district's Local Indian Education Committee, which now makes them eligible for Impact Aid dollars for the 2023 fiscal year.

Following hours of discussion and votes, each board member encouraged the public to vote in the Nov. 2 election so as to avoid another year of difficult cuts and reductions.

"As a board, we have made some stances from time to time that you may not agree with," Lind said in closing. "If you want to punish (the school board), vote us out of office. Don't punish our kids by saying 'no' to this referendum."

The full meeting can be viewed on the Bemidji Area Schools YouTube channel.

The board will hold a special meeting to canvass election results on Tuesday, Nov. 9, at 7:30 a.m. The next regular board meeting is scheduled for at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 15, in the district board room.

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