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Helmut Schmidt, Published January 16 2011

Fargo evaluates school populations

The Fargo School Board is focusing this week on Kennedy Elementary crowding, but the view will soon go districtwide to fix the opposite problem – enrollment losses on the north side of town.

“We’ve got a sparkplug that needs to be fixed one way or another, and that’s Kennedy,” board President Jim Johnson said Saturday.

“We also see a need to do a comprehensive study districtwide on our space utilization” and needs, he said during a board retreat at the Radisson Hotel.

Board members and district staff will meet with Kennedy-area residents Thursday at the southside school to get feedback. Johnson said the meeting time has not yet been set.

Depending on neighborhood wishes, the school board could be asked to vote on an addition to Kennedy to be built by next fall, Johnson said. The board could also opt to change the school’s boundary map by fall 2012 to bring fifth-graders, now at Discovery Middle School, back to the elementary.

While growth is booming in the south side of the city, enrollments have eroded in the north.

Some proposed solutions include widespread school boundary changes, busing students, moving a program or programs north, creating a magnet school, closing a school, or closing two aging elementaries and building one modern building to replace them.

Johnson said the broad ramifications of those alternatives would be best addressed by a community task force. And several board members said they thought it was time to create another long-range facilities plan.

“Does it make sense to keep all of our buildings functioning as they are today? Does it make sense to repurpose some of those buildings? I think it’s way premature” to speculate until it is studied, he said.

Kennedy is a four-section school, meaning it was built with rooms for four classes in each grade K-5. But enrollment boomed. It has seven sections of kindergartners and six sections of first-graders, records show.

Kennedy is expected to open with 710 students this fall, putting it at 129 percent of capacity. In addition to having its fifth-graders at Discovery, portable classrooms are used.

The cost to add eight classrooms and expand the cafeteria is $1.4 million. To add nine classrooms and expand the cafeteria would cost $1.57 million, MBA Architects estimates.

The additions would turn Kennedy into a five-section school. Bennett and Centennial schools are the district’s current five-section elementary schools.

Broc Lietz, assistant superintendent for business services, said the

$29.8 million fund balance for the general fund can be used to pay for an addition.

Board member John Strand said he’d prefer to see money for an addition spent on a new school, if that’s what’s really needed.

“In my head, I’d rather put that $1½ million into that next new elementary and continue with the original vision of the community of neighborhood schools and not build this one to the size of a high school,” Strand said.

But Superintendent Rick Buresh said it may be five or six years before a new elementary must be built.

Kennedy is at “a precipice,” Buresh said. “It’s going to be a very problematic year if we keep going with the status quo.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583