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Helmut Schmidt, Published September 09 2012

West Fargo board to take up school construction debate tonight

WEST FARGO – The West Fargo School Board will be asked tonight to decide whether it wants a new elementary school built by 2014 or if it will delay the project a year or two to cushion the impact on the district’s budget.

The need for a quick decision is forced by faster-than-expected elementary enrollment growth south of Interstate 94.

The new 550-student Freedom Elementary opened full, with 565 students enrolled on the first day of school.

Two of the seven board members said Friday that they are leaning heavily toward giving the go-ahead for construction now.

“I think we need to pull the trigger,” Jeff Shirley said.

“I don’t know that we have the time to wait,” he said. “What I see is kids are coming, and we’re going to have operating expenses similar to another school” in hiring teachers to teach them.

“I guess, publicly, I stated (two weeks ago) I would be in favor of going forward as soon as possible,” Dave Olson said.

Both Shirley and Olson said they want to hear what their fellow board members have to say and find out if new information was obtained by Superintendent David Flowers or Business Manager Mark Lemer.

Board President Kay Kiefer and Angela Korsmo want to hear what’s presented at the meeting before they decide.

Kiefer wants the answers to questions asked by the board at its last meeting.

Korsmo said delaying construction has financial advantages, but “I think we need to address how it’s going to affect student learning if we wait.”

The $11 million price tag for another 550-student elementary school is covered by an $82.5 million bond issue approved by voters in May 2011. The problem is finding funds to pay operating costs, estimated at $1.3 million a year for staff, supplies, utilities, etc.

The district already plans to deficit-spend for a few years as it opens Liberty Middle School and Sheyenne High School.

Even if the board decides to start construction now, the school won’t be ready until fall 2014, Lemer said.

The most likely construction site would be newly purchased land east of Sheyenne 9th Grade Center and north of 40th Avenue South, a board memo stated.

The district will have extra classrooms south of Interstate 94, Lemer said. Osgood Kindergarten Center may have some rooms, and Liberty Middle School, designed for 1,200 students, is expected to open half full.

There is also extra space at the Lodoen Center, and portable classrooms could be purchased or space rented in the community for classrooms, a board memo stated.

“I want space for children, but I also don’t want the board to make a decision where they’re uncomfortable” with the costs of running a school, Flowers said Friday.

The board may also be asked to weigh options for location and funding for another elementary school if housing construction south of Interstate 94 continues to drive up elementary enrollments, a memo stated.

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