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Published May 22 2013

Forum editorial: Time to seize the opportunity

Here’s a thought: Could growing enrollments and a new funding formula for state education aid create a future in which West Fargo and Fargo schools decide to build a joint high school opening around 2020?

Sounds crazy, given the history of the two school districts’ fierce autonomy and tradition of separate schools. But West Fargo school administrators mentioned the possibility to The Forum Editorial Board when discussing continued enrollment growth and the possible need for a new high school as early as 2020.

If West Fargo enrollment trends continue, preparations for a third high school would have to be underway in about five years. That’s because the combined capacity of the two high schools, 3,000 students, could be exceeded by 2020. Next fall, for instance, West Fargo expects to see 350 to 400 new students. Most of those would be in elementary grades K through five – but those new pupils represent future high school students.

The plausibility of a joint high school shared by West Fargo and Fargo got an unexpected nudge by the North Dakota Legislature, which passed historic state support for education funding, including additional property tax relief. The result is that the state will pay 80 percent of the cost of educating each student, and cap local property taxes, unless local voters approve additional spending.

As a result, the local property tax becomes less important in paying for education, and therefore differences in valuations between property “rich” and property “poor” districts become less meaningful. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter so much that the West Acres shopping area is located in the West Fargo School District. The fact that all of that valuable commercial property is located in the city of Fargo but in the West Fargo school district has long been an advantage for West Fargo schools – and a sore point for Fargo taxpayers.

With a more level playing field in terms of funding, the two neighboring school districts now have a historic opportunity to explore the feasibility of working together in new ways, including the possibility of shared schools, to gain efficiencies and strengthen programs. Officials in both districts should be willing to set aside old rivalries and embrace new thinking to arrive at creative solutions that will benefit students and taxpayers.

Historically, West Fargo has had fewer financial incentives to collaborate. But it appears that’s changing. If so, it’s a change for the better.

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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.