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Helmut Schmidt, Published September 10 2012

West Fargo board votes 6-0 for new elementary school by 2014

WEST FARGO – The West Fargo School Board voted 6-0 Monday to move ahead with building another new elementary school by 2014.

The board decided to move ahead with building an $11 million, 550-student school, despite worries about where it will find another $1.3 million in annual operational costs.

“We can’t afford to wait. We have to figure a way financially to make it go,” board member Dave Olson said.

Freedom Elementary south of Interstate 94 opened full in August, Olson said. And there are a couple sections of land ready for homes around Freedom and surrounding a 12-acre school site being acquired just north of 40th Avenue South.

“The (housing) boom we’ve had? I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist – down in that area, it will continue,” Olson said.

Superintendent David Flowers and Business Manager Mark Lemer said the district may be able to tap some of what remains of a $5 million fund set up by the last Legislature to help growing districts.

Flowers urged the board to work with lawmakers to change the state school funding formula so that school districts are paid for the students in the year they arrive.

Under the current funding system, payments for the 540 students West Fargo picked up between fall 2011 and this year won’t start coming in until next year.

“Without some assistance in some form, it’s going to be difficult for us (to run another school) without a very austere budget,” Lemer said.

The district is already running a deficit budget, dipping into its reserves to make ends meet. It also plans to open Liberty Middle School next fall, as well as the academic wing addition for Sheyenne High School.

Board member Jeff Shirley said the district will have to gamble that it can make ends meet over the next few years.

“If I am going to have to gamble, I don’t want to gamble with our kids,” Shirley said.

The district had planned to build another elementary in a couple of years, but growth has been on the high end of projections, Flowers said.

Board President Kay Kiefer said going ahead with the school made sense, particularly since the district would have to hire teachers to teach the students even if they were housed in extra classrooms, portable classrooms or in rented spaces.

“There’s going to be a budget impact …. regardless of whether we put up a building,” she said.

While the next school is being built, administrators said fifth-graders from Freedom and Aurora elementaries could be housed at Liberty next year if kindergarten through fifth-grade enrollment continues to grow at a brisk pace.

That 1,200-student school is expected to open about half-full, Flowers and Lemer said.

Money for another elementary school would come from $82.5 million in bonding approved by voters in May 2011.

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