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Kelly Smith, Published August 27 2009

While West Fargo school enrollment balloons, Fargo’s relatively stable

Attendance on the first day of school in West Fargo and Fargo on Wednesday points to a larger trend.

West Fargo exceeded projections, welcoming 6,955 students – 337 more than last year. Meanwhile, 10,370 students showed up for school in Fargo, leaving enrollment essentially unchanged since last year.

The numbers reflect opposite trends for the two districts – one, an atypical ballooning of growth over the years; the other, relative stability.

“We just have to deal with our own reality,” said Fargo Superintendent Rick Buresh. “It’s continuing a pattern that’s been here for the three years I’ve been here and that started long before that.”

The trends

Enrollment in Fargo grew until 1999 – a year that kicked off nearly 10 years of declining numbers.

Local demographers blame slowing birth rates in the 1980s.

“We didn’t see it as anything that was an oddity,” said Fargo School District Assistant Superintendent Lowell Wolff. “It was just a demographic cycle.”

Contrast that with the West Fargo School District, which claims the title of the state’s fastest-growing school district.

The Packers are an anomaly in North Dakota as other districts statewide see enrollments dwindle. Last year, West Fargo had 500 additional students – a 7 percent enrollment increase in what typically grows only 2 to 3 percent.

“We’ve always said it’s a good problem to have,” said West Fargo Superintendent Dana Diesel Wallace. “(But) it’s a challenge to continue to create new spaces.”

It’s not a new challenge for the district.

“We were either completing a building project or starting another one,” former West Fargo Superintendent Marvin Leidal said about his 39 years in the district. “I can’t remember a time when we didn’t have an increase in enrollment from one year to the next.”

Tale of two cities

But why are two adjacent school districts seeing such contrasting trends?

It’s the same as any metro area with growth in outer suburbs and stability in core schools, Wolff said.

Richard Rathge, director of the Fargo-based North Dakota State Data Center, points to population growth.

West Fargo had a population of 15,535 in 2000, which ballooned 59 percent to 23,709 people by 2008. In that same time, Fargo’s population grew 3 percent, from 90,909 people to 93,531.

While West Fargo’s population growth has recently slowed, Rathge said, the city still experienced a 3 percent growth between 2007 and 2008 – equivalent to the increase Fargo saw in eight years.

He said it also matters who moves to a city.

“The people who are moving into West Fargo tend to be families – and not only families, but families with kids,” Rathge said.

Of West Fargo’s total population, 9.1 percent is younger than 5. In Fargo, that number is 6 percent. In West Fargo, 67.5 percent of households are made up of families, while Fargo families represent 49.3 percent of households.

In part, that’s because West Fargo has more homes and Fargo has more apartments, Rathge said.

Leidal also singles out taxes.

“Over the years, our total tax situation has been less than what it’s been in Fargo,” said the 71-year-old who led the district for 20 years. “Buying a home in West Fargo would be less than in Fargo.”

A bright forecast

For the two districts, perhaps just as significant as the past is the future. Both school districts forecast enrollment growth over the next five years.

“The pendulum is swinging back now,” Wolff said.

An increase in births and younger families moving to north Fargo may help the district, Rathge said.

“Fargo is just starting to grow again; it’s always a cycle,” he said, adding that much of the land in West Fargo is already being developed. “In West Fargo, the amount of growth is starting to stabilize. There is only finite land.”

So that means that, even with all its growth, West Fargo enrollment may not match Fargo’s anytime soon.

“(It’s a) very good question,” Leidal said. “I don’t know in my lifetime that’s going to happen.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515