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Helmut Schmidt, Published August 27 2012

West Fargo school construction debate begins

WEST FARGO – West Fargo School Board members knew they’d have to build another elementary school. They just didn’t realize the debate would start so soon.

With Freedom Elementary opening full, the district has blown past an enrollment trigger point not expected for another year or two.

Keeping a tight budget in mind, administrators laid out options Monday in starting the debate on whether to build an $11 million school now – or try to wait a year or two.

From board member Dave Olson’s point of view, the board promised voters their kids would have the classrooms they needed.

“My opinion is we should exhaust all methods to build that elementary school as soon as possible,” Olson said, particularly with housing growth south of Interstate 94 heating up.

The district saw 540 more students on opening day, and Olson said that could happen next fall, too.

Building another $11 million elementary school isn’t a problem in terms of paying for the bricks and mortar, Business Manager Mark Lemer said. Voters have that covered as part of $82.5 million in bonds they approved in May 2011.

It’s staffing and operations costs, added to a budget stressed by the opening of Freedom, and Liberty Middle School next year, and Sheyenne High School the year after.

The district will deficit spend $1 million this year, and continue deficit spending the next three years, Lemer said.

Those plans would have to be adjusted if $1.3 million a year to staff and run another elementary is tossed into the budget, Lemer said.

Superintendent David Flowers said West Fargo can hope for some help from the state.

West Fargo may try to tap a $5 million fund set aside for districts that top 7 percent growth in a year, Flowers said.

Another hope is that the Legislature will decide in the coming session to pay aid to districts for students they see in the year they arrive, rather than adjusting state aid a year after enrollments go up, he said.

The district will have extra classrooms south of Interstate 94 for a year or two, Lemer said. Osgood Kindergarten Center will likely have at least two classrooms available next fall. And Liberty Middle School is made for 1,200 students but is expected to open half full.

Liberty would have space for fifth-graders from Aurora or Freedom elementary schools, and perhaps even fourth-graders, if needed, Lemer and Flowers said.

That was an option that seemed to appeal to board member Patti Stedman, who said the district must also keep in mind other needs.

At the same time board President Kay Kiefer was concerned that transferring students from school-to-school would create too many jarring transitions.

Lemer said he’s looking at refinancing some of the district’s long-term debt for cost savings.

In the end, the board asked staff to:

If construction of a school is approved this fall, it would open in fall 2014, the board was told.

Lemer warned that the flip side of waiting to delay construction another year is that brisk growth could cause the next elementary school to open full, too.

Flowers said he and his staff will develop some best-case and worst-case scenarios for the board to study.

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

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