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Published September 22 2012

West Fargo superintendent Flowers has been a builder for west metro school districts

WEST FARGO - Who could have figured that a guy from Kansas would become the Johnny Appleseed of schools for this chunk of eastern North Dakota?

David Flowers, superintendent for the West Fargo School District, has helped plant a small garden of schools in Fargo and West Fargo.

From 1999 to 2007, he was superintendent for the Fargo School District as Jefferson Elementary, Kennedy Elementary and Carl Ben Eielson Middle School were built.

In spring 2007, as he was ending his time in Fargo, the school board hired an architect to design and build Davies High School.

That doesn’t include major work to modernize or expand Fargo’s North High School, Ben Franklin Middle School and Longfellow Elementary.

Since summer 2010, Flowers has guided the West Fargo School District through an $82.5 million bond vote that resulted in building Freedom Elementary School, construction on Liberty Middle School and expansion of the Sheyenne 9th Grade Center into a high school. The school board also recently gave the green light for a second elementary school.

But Flowers is not just a pied piper of bricks and mortar.

He’s also helped West Fargo schools create a new strategic plan, is helping the school board institute a new system to govern the district, and sat in on teacher contract talks. All the while keeping an eye on improving student learning.

Board member Dave Olson figures Flowers probably has some Energizer Bunny genes in him. A really smart, articulate rabbit at that.

“How many meetings he is at besides his daily schedule, it’s incredible the amount of time that he puts in. It’s amazing,” Olson said.

“I wonder if there are three or four of him around. I just hope we don’t wear him out, plain and simple,” Olson said.

Karen Nitzkorski, who was president of the West Fargo board when the bond passed, disagrees on the bunny part.

She said Flowers’ effectiveness isn’t due to a hop-to-it mania. It’s because he’s a natural leader.

“It’s listening and getting lots of involvement that makes a difference. He could go anywhere and be successful,” Nitzkorski said.

“He has a quiet integrity about him. … And you just get a confidence in that quiet integrity and his leadership abilities,” Nitzkorski said. “Does he have a magic? I think he does.”

Current board president Kay Kiefer agrees.

“One of the things that has struck me, probably the strongest, is his sincere interest in people, and the sincere way he listens to people,” Kiefer said. “That has gone a very long way to building trust in our community. When people feel heard, they are more able to handle the challenges that come with rapid growth.”

Early learning curve

When Flowers landed in Fargo in 1999, he had a learning curve of his own.

As Fargo’s superintendent, he met determined – sometimes angry, even spittle-flying angry – opposition to the idea of closing old elementary schools with dropping enrollments in the north part of the city, and then building new schools in the south.

“The mistake we made at first in Fargo was trying to sell a vision,” Flowers said. “That was a lesson learned. I was younger then.”

Rather than bulling forward, Flowers took a different tack. He called in a communications firm to find the community’s consensus on school class sizes, school sizes, walking and busing distances, and other priorities.

That shaped a long-term facilities plan that not only built schools where they were needed, but revamped the grade configurations to be the same districtwide, and eventually created today’s three high school feeder system.

“One of the things that I have learned is that the process is as important as the end product,” he said. “If you don’t get the process right, you’re not as likely to get the school district to support” big changes.

Lessons put to use

When Flowers arrived in West Fargo in 2010, the district had already seen two bond votes go down in flames.

Trust in the school board and administration had been eroded, some officials said.

Teachers were unhappy. Voters were unhappy. Parents were unhappy.

Fortunately, Flowers put the lessons he learned in Fargo to use.

After connecting with teachers, administrators, taxpayers, students and other constituencies, Flowers created a task force to tackle the district’s pressing space needs.

A key part of the process: Flowers championed hiring a demographer to make sure the district had accurate information on how many children were headed to West Fargo schools.

Still, after the board decided to call for another bond vote – this time for several new schools and $82.5 million – Flowers and his staff faced a lot of questions from voters suspicious of enrollment and cost projections.

Other voters were worried that the bond issue would hike their taxes, just as the region was recovering from the Great Recession.

A few were irate that the district would seek another vote after being told “No!” twice before.

Some wondered if the district would have difficulty paying the daily bills for more schools.

That’s now an issue the district is grappling with due to faster-than-expected enrollment increases at the elementary level south of Interstate 94.

Flowers, his staff and the school board answered those questions at several public meetings.

The end result was 70 percent of West Fargo School District voters backing the ambitious building plan in May 2011.

Angela Korsmo, a longtime West Fargo School Board member, said it was Flowers’ openness, willingness to listen and determination to get accurate information to the public that got the bond issue over the hump.

“I think that’s how we got the $82.5 million (in bonding authority). Which was a scary amount of money,” Korsmo said.

More work ahead

Vern Bennett, who was superintendent for the Fargo School District for the 28 years before Flowers arrived, said Flowers’ success at getting things built is impressive for this part of the country.

Bennett, whose own philosophy is “don’t build unless you need to,” had overseen construction of Centennial Elementary and Discovery Junior High, and the expansion of South High.

“It’s a lot of building, there’s no question about that, but there’s a need for the buildings, too,” Bennett said.

Flowers said building new schools when they’re needed “sends a strong message to children that the community cares about them; that the spaces that they learn in are adequate … clean, well-lighted and maintained.”

He’s quick to credit the school boards and staff that he’s worked with that have handled the finance and construction issues.

“Those folks are the ones that really make sure it happens,” Flowers said. “I wouldn’t take any more credit than anyone else that’s part of the process.”

That attitude rings true for those who work with him.

“He would never say he did it alone,” Nitzkorski said. “He calls them, ‘Our accomplishments.’ Not any one person’s.”

And Flowers and the school district may not be done with putting up schools.

Freedom opened full and there’s no end in sight to building south of I-94, Kiefer said.

Kiefer said the corridor that includes the planned Sanford Hospital, Costco and other businesses will spur housing growth.

“People want to live close to where they work, and they want schools close to where they live,” she said.

Flowers said it takes a section and a half of housing to fill a 550-student elementary. There’s easily that much land primed for development, he said.

“We still might not be ahead of the curve,” Flowers said. “It’s something that we need to at least discuss if we want to get in front of the curve and not perpetually opening schools near full.”

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