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Published December 01 2010

Forum editorial: Prepare for change in Fargo schools

A few years ago, a Fargo School Board election turned on the desire of school district voters to preserve neighborhood elementary schools. Candidates who ran on the neighborhood school issue won and were re-elected, a few several times. Candidates and incumbent board members who wanted to close or “repurpose” older, underutilized schools, mostly in north Fargo, fell out of favor with voters.

During the interim between then and now, the board and administration developed long-range strategic plans based in part on preservation of neighborhood schools in the city’s older neighborhoods. New schools in the city’s newer neighborhoods in south Fargo tended to be big, “pod-type” buildings that drew in students from much larger geographic areas than the schools in north Fargo. The south schools serve much larger “neighborhoods.”

In the past couple of school elections, those board members who won in the past because of their advocacy of small neighborhood schools lost their seats. New members with different ideas about utilization of school buildings are not beholden to the old neighborhood school model. That might mean changes to school boundaries and the busing network. The viability of the older, less-populated school buildings on the north side and in midtown is high on the board’s agenda.

The board is again confronting the challenge of how to best use classroom capacity in elementary schools. Several schools on the north side are underutilized – that is, they have surplus general classroom space. On the south side, however, the new elementary schools are either at or near capacity. The problem is obvious: How to maximize efficient use of all elementary classroom space without shutting down neighborhood schools on the north side.

Demographics drive the debate. Enrollment is down on the north side and in midtown; it’s going up every year on the south side. The trend is likely to continue, further putting pressure on the district to make significant school boundary adjustments. And there are few changes as initially disruptive and emotional as redrawing elementary school lines.

It’s a work in progress. The board and administration are preparing an enrollment management study plan. “Baby steps” first, said board President Jim Johnson. A thorough look at the situation is on tap for the board’s annual retreat early next year.

“Baby steps” make sense. And careful steps. Change will come. Minimizing the upset among parents and students wrought by change is the real challenge.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.