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Helmut Schmidt, Published March 19 2013

Clara Barton, Hawthorne neighborhood residents concerned about potential school closings

FARGO – Nearly 100 residents of the Clara Barton and Hawthorne elementary school areas peppered two members of the school board Tuesday with questions about how the district’s latest round of facilities planning will affect those schools.

Several people at Hawthorne Elementary complained they are just now getting input into a process that could be three months from completion – and could mean the closure or repurposing of several older schools.

Eric Sondag said the information gathered so far is incomplete because it includes nothing about whether rehabilitating old schools is financially feasible.

“Where will we end up if we don’t have this information?” Sondag asked school board members John Strand and Kris Wallman after they outlined the district’s long-range facilities planning process.

Sondag said the district’s facilities consultant, ICS Consulting of Mounds View, Minn., doesn’t have expertise in rehabbing buildings.

Sondag said if the district sticks with its original 10-month timetable, there’s only three more months for public input. He added that the process appears slanted toward closing older schools.

“They’ve delivered it with a bow on it,” Sondag said, drawing applause from the crowd.

Strand and Wallman said the creation of the district’s next long-range facilities plan is a transparent process.

“The reality is that no one has proposed taking your buildings away from you,” Strand said. “We can’t operate out of fear. We have to operate on a plan.”

Strand said task force meetings, which start Thursday evening at Agassiz School, are open to the public. Wallman said there is considerable information on the work done so far on the district’s website.

Strand said the task force will weigh the cost of bringing old buildings up to modern standards versus perhaps building one new building to replace two or three buildings.

“One of the needs of the district is our ongoing maintenance line of our budget. I think our reality is that we have not been able to fund (upgrades). Before you put $3 million to $4 million into a building, you need to know its future,” Strand said.

Strand said the 27-member task force’s work will also include determining when another elementary school will need to be built in south Fargo.

The district has 10,800 students this year, but expects 200 students a year for the next few years. This fall, 90 more students are expected in the Kennedy Elementary School area.

The audience wasn’t shy about their support for their older, neighborhood schools.

Questions included: How does a split campus affect the students? Did you ask the parents? Where are the concerns (about pairing schools) coming from? Why have the schools been targeted? Have there been any offers for the land they are on?

Strand said the board hasn’t had offers for the land the schools sit on.

“A sheet I read said Hawthorne would become a parking lot for RDO. That’s not the case,” Strand said. “And I don’t think it will ever be the case that we’re ever in the pockets for somebody for development.”

“There’s no roadmap for this,” Wallman said. “We want the process to be transparent. We want to know what you think.”

Hawthorne Elementary is paired with nearby Clara Barton Elementary. Students in grades kindergarten through 2 go to Hawthorne, while grades 3 through 5 go to Clara Barton. It’s an arrangement that has worked for nearly a decade.

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

Potentially the most costly among elementary schools are Clara Barton at $3.85 million, Horace Mann at $3.25 million, Roosevelt at $3 million, Lewis and Clark at $4.3 million, Madison at $3.4 million, and McKinley at 3 million.

Jim Alger, the president of the Hawthorne Neighborhood Association, said he thought the meeting was informative, but worries about the planning process.

“They don’t consider the neighborhood. If this school is taken out, our neighborhood begins to deteriorate forever,” Alger said.

Rebecca Knutson, president of the Clara Barton Neighborhood Association, said many residents are getting involved.

“We have a good group of people,” she said. “I sure hope that passion continues.”

School board President Jim Johnson and board member Robin Nelson were also in the audience.

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