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Voters approve new school in Bemidji

BEMIDJI -- It was a yes-yes vote for schools on Tuesday as voters passed both questions in the referendum to authorize funding to construct and operate a new fourth- and fifth-grade elementary school.


With all 36 precincts reporting just after 1 a.m. Wednesday, 52.15 percent of voters approved the funds to build the new school while 50.68 percent approved of additional funds to operate it.

“Bemidji is a community that has supported educational questions in the past and will continue to do so,” said Ann Long Voelkner, a member of the Bemidji School Board.

Several school officials, including Superintendent Jim Hess, watched the results come through in person down at the Beltrami County campus.

“We’re still plugging in the numbers and keeping our fingers crossed,” said Hess, speaking while 30 of 36 precincts were indicating a positive yes-yes vote.

There were two related school questions on Tuesday’s ballot -- one to fund the construction of a new elementary school and the other to fund its operation -- and both needed to pass in order for the school to be built.

The first question asked voters to approve $40 million in building bonds to fund the construction of a new school that would serve all of the district’s fourth- and fifth-graders.

Of those funds, nearly $6 million would advance capitalized interest on the bonds and another $4 million would replace the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning unit at Bemidji Middle School. The aging HVAC system, built in 1981, utilizes a freon that is being phased out due to federal regulations.

The second question would allow the district to increase its funding by $1 million a year for 10 years to operate the new school.

In arguing for the referendum, supporters cited increasing enrollments, primarily in younger grades. According to district literature, Bemidji Area Schools has gained 358 K-5 students since 2007 and another 326 are projected throughout the next five years.

Those increases, the district argues, have filled and will continue to fill neighborhood elementary schools beyond capacity.

In response, the district proposed a new 900-student school to serve all of the district’s fourth- and fifth-graders. By relocating those grades, corresponding space would then be opened at all of the elementaries.

“This physical plant improvements will allow our school district to be well-positioned for the future,” Hess said late Tuesday night, speaking optimistically before the last of the results were reported.

Both Hess and Long Voelkner said any successful vote would not have been possible without the efforts of the district supporters, especially those who served on the “vote yes” committee.

“We had outstanding support,” Hess said.

The School Board will next meet on Monday to canvass election results.

“I know everyone has thought about what the next steps will be, regardless of the the vote is, but we will canvass the results and then start making plans to make plans,” Long Voelkner said.