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Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald, Published June 09 2009

West Fargo’s enrollment set to outpace Grand Forks district

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – Two little-noticed numbers illustrate big changes in North Dakota: When school starts in August, West Fargo public schools will have more students than the Grand Forks district.

That’s right, West Fargo, founded as a meat-packing town that for decades had more cattle bought, sold and slaughtered every week than children in school.

In September, the fast-growing West Fargo School District figures to have 6,902 students in grades K-12, an increase of 4 percent from last September, said Heather Leas, administrative assistant in the superintendent’s office.

Meanwhile, the Grand Forks Public School District, including the two schools on the Grand Forks Air Force Base, projects it will have 6,808 students in grades K-12, the lowest number in almost 50 years and down 2.4 percent from last fall, said Superintendant Larry Nybladh.

Nybladh reported the projected enrollment recently to members of the independent Grand Forks Air Force Base district that is administered and operated jointly by the Grand Forks district.

Remarkably, West Fargo will surpass Grand Forks’ public school population this summer while having a city population of less than half of Grand Forks.

The crowded schools are why West Fargo school officials pushed hard to win voters’ approval today for a $65 million referendum that would result in a second high school built, a new elementary school, renovations on the current high school and expanding an elementary school.

Meanwhile, the Grand Forks district is wondering when to pull the plug on one of two schools at the Air Force base, which with only about 330 students slated for the fall semester in grades K-8, will see the fewest students since the 1950s.

“I think it speaks to the residential growth and expansion of the West Fargo community,” said Nybladh, who spent almost a decade as superintendent in Moorhead. “It has been the community with the most dramatic increase in residents in the Fargo-Moorhead metro area.”

West Fargo has been North Dakota’s fastest-growing city for many years, multiplying 16 times since being a city of 1,600 in 1950. And the growth has accelerated, increasing by 75 percent since just 2000. Grand Forks grew by less than 1 percent a year recently, and lost population for several years after the flood of 1997.

“Although we are holding our own in terms of population, we see a decline somewhat in the city due to recent birth rates and the exodus of air base students,” Nybladh said.

It’s a huge change for both districts over time, as well as for the two cities.

In September 1970, for example, West Fargo public schools had 2,464 students. That same fall, Grand Forks had 12,732 students, which was its peak enrollment.

Both school districts have been on contrasting trajectories the past 40 years which have speeded up recently.

West Fargo’s district has grown by 36 percent since 2000, when 5,067 students were enrolled. Grand Forks’ school enrollment has fallen 18 percent during the same period, from 8,336 students starting school in September 2000.

Grand Forks’ population is about 52,000; West Fargo’s is about 26,000.

In 1970, Grand Forks had about 40,000 people; West Fargo about 5,000 people.

According to published reports, West Fargo has a larger percentage of its population younger than 18, about 30 percent, than Grand Forks, which has about 25 percent younger than 18.

The projected enrollment next fall of 6,808 in Grand Forks schools will be the lowest since 1961, when the district had 6,548, according to figures provided by the district.

Grand Forks schools’ decreasing numbers reflect North Dakota normality; fast-growing West Fargo schools are the exception.

Total enrollment in North Dakota public schools in grades K-12 has fallen from the peak of 150,000 in 1966 to 100,000 last year and will be down to 95,000 next year, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.

The Grand Forks Herald and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.