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Helmut Schmidt, Published January 31 2013

As costs grow, closing smaller Fargo elementaries, building new ones an option

FARGO - Big changes may be coming for the city’s public elementary schools, particularly on the north side.

Members of the school board’s ad hoc long-term facilities planning committee met this week to consider the possibility of closing several aging, undersized or outdated elementary schools in the next decade. They would be replaced with fewer – but modern – buildings, based on recommendations from school facilities experts at ICS Consulting.

ICS, a Mounds View, Minn.-based firm, recommended analyzing the “long-term sustainability” of elementary schools with fewer than 300 students. That includes Horace Mann, Roosevelt, McKinley and Madison on the north side; and Clara Barton and Hawthorne on the south side.

The ICS report said inefficiencies in many areas should be considered – operations, staffing, administration, student transportation and staff travel, unequal learning programs, and excessive capital improvement and maintenance costs – along with the location of each school and whether there are enough students in their attendance areas.

ICS also determined that several of the district’s 21 schools will need millions of dollars in upgrades and repairs in the next decade.

Among the potentially costliest are Clara Barton at $3.85 million, Horace Mann $3.25 million, Roosevelt $3 million, Lewis and Clark $4.3 million, Madison $3.4 million and McKinley $3 million.

The biggest costs are to update heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

Business Manager Broc Lietz estimated replacing some of the schools would cost $8 million to $10 million.

“Some of our buildings, (it’s) 60 percent of the value just to bring them up to the standard of other buildings, and you still have a 100-year-old building,” facilities committee Chairman John Strand said Thursday.

“Do you consolidate your facilities and invest in new? Or do you stay with the old and keep putting money into them?” Strand asked.

Committee member Robin Nelson said keeping some of the older schools open longer is going to cost more in the long-run than “repurposing” or closing them.

“It’s no secret right now that a lot of northside schools are not being used efficiently,” she said.

The committee directed district administrators to work with ICS on developing facilities scenarios – new construction, additions, repurposing, etc. – and putting a price tag to them.

Included in the scenarios will be building another elementary school in far south Fargo, Strand said.

Strand said Fargo’s public schools are expected to gain 200 students a year for the foreseeable future. He said the Kennedy Elementary area may see 90 more students this fall.

“I think the community knows we have this shift in population” from north to south, Strand said. “We can’t keep growing Kennedy into a mega-school.”

‘The Jefferson Option’

The scenarios may include what committee members called “The Jefferson Option,” in which two or more aging schools with low enrollments are consolidated in one new building.

That was done with Jefferson and Carl Ben Eielson elementary schools. A state-of-the-art Jefferson Elementary now stands near where the old Jefferson once stood at 1701 4th Ave. S.

“It’s a good time to put everything together and do this proactively,” Nelson said.

“I’m also realistic,” the Horace Mann graduate added. “If it’s going to cost more than 50 percent” of the building’s value to fix, it may be time to put up a new building.

Among ICS’ other recommendations:

• Look at fixes for likely overcrowding in the next few years at Lewis and Clark and Bennett elementary schools.

• Increase deferred maintenance and capital improvement budgets to handle expected costs.

• Perform a districtwide audit of current and future technology spending.

• Perform a districtwide audit of energy use.

“It’s amazing the amounts that could be saved annually in a district your size,” ICS Project Director Gary Benson said.

• Develop a districtwide security and emergency preparedness analysis.

• Prepare an attendance boundaries adjustment analysis once the long-term facilities plan is approved.

A fix for Kennedy

The facilities committee also agreed to ask the full school board to decide soon on short-term solutions to handle crowding at Kennedy Elementary School, 4401 42nd St. S.

Among ideas considered: sending Kennedy’s fifth-graders to Discovery Middle School, sending kindergarteners to the Eagles Center, making short-term boundary shifts and increasing class sizes.

The school board will also be asked to study the long-term viability of continuing to pair Horace Mann and Roosevelt, and Clara Barton and Hawthorne schools.

Paired schools split grades between them. In Fargo, that means grades K-2 at Hawthorne and Horace Mann and grades 3-5 at Clara Barton and Roosevelt. It helps assure there is more than one section of students in each grade in those schools to give students more learning opportunities, and to help teachers coordinate instructional strategies.

“Our druthers are to have K-5 together” in one building, Strand said.

Facility cost index

ICS developed a facility cost index for each school. The index is a ratio of the estimated cost to repair or upgrade the school, versus replacing it with a new building. The higher the ratio, the more consideration should go to replacing the building instead of investing in repairs, ICS said.

Among the schools with high facility cost indexes are McKinley (0.62), Madison (0.59), Horace Mann (0.57), Clara Barton (0.54), Roosevelt (0.49), Lewis and Clark (0.45) and Hawthorne (0.36).

The district’s other schools are fairly new or have undergone extensive renovations in recent years that put their cost indexes below 0.10.

Strand said he’s happy the school district has solid data from experts outside the Fargo area to make decisions going forward.

“It’s going to give some fiscal reality” to the debate, Strand said. “We’re not just emotionally driving forward with gut feelings.”

School board President Jim Johnson predicted the ICS report will generate a lot of discussion, particularly over the potential fate of older buildings.

He said the ICS estimates for maintenance and upgrades represent making the buildings run like they were new.

“Obviously, we function perfectly well in those buildings right now,” Johnson said. “I, as one board member, would ask a lot of questions before I’d be interesting in spending that money.”

Parallel to ICS’ work on facilities, the district hired Kansas-based RSP and Associates to study Fargo’s demographic trends.

RSP also did demographic studies for the West Fargo School District in advance of its $82.5 million bond vote in 2011.

Strand and Nelson said the community will have a chance help form the next 10-year facilities plan in the coming months.

“The public needs to be watching. We count on that so we can make the right decisions,” Nelson said.

“There will be a community sensitivity awareness going on,” Strand said. “We need to show the community that we’re on top of our game” and spending public dollars responsibly.

“I don’t think they (school district residents) want us to dodge it. They don’t want us to skirt the issue,” he said.

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