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Kyle Potter, Published May 23 2013

West Fargo leads F-M in school growth

WEST FARGO - Schools held their last day of classes here Thursday, kicking off summer break for nearly 8,000 students.

When school starts again in the fall, the West Fargo district expects to welcome a student body that’s grown by as much as 500 children – a 6 percent increase in one year.

All school districts in the Fargo-Moorhead area are staring down steady projected increases in student enrollment over the next five years, but West Fargo expects the fastest growth.

District officials forecast an average of 430 new students will enter West Fargo schools over each of the next five years, with overall enrollment increasing 27 percent by the start of the 2017-18 school year.

The expected boom has raised the possibility that another new high school and elementary school will be needed in West Fargo in the next decade. The district already opened a new elementary last fall, and it will open a new middle school this fall as it transitions a ninth grade center into a second high school.

Other area school districts hope they can shuffle around students and repurpose or add on to existing buildings to cope with growing enrollment. But officials from each of the four local districts acknowledge new construction may be necessary if the increases stay on their current pace.

School officials look to growing kindergarten classes as the driving force behind the projected enrollment growth. In West Fargo, for instance, kindergarten enrollment has increased 37 percent since the 2008-09 school year. The district projects that will continue to grow until it peaks at 829 in 2015-16, then starts to taper down to 785 West Fargo kindergartners for the 2022-23 year.

Mark Lemer, West Fargo schools’ business manager, said the school board will start discussing this summer whether the district needs more elementary school classrooms. Lemer said he expects the newest West Fargo elementary school will be at or near capacity when it opens for the 2014-15 school year, which will put extra pressure on the district to plan for any continued growth.

“Our need is going to be here relatively quickly,” he said. “We’re sort of in our growth spurt right now.”

The Fargo Public Schools projects their schools will take in 1,000 new students in the next five years, and Moorhead officials expect to take in 75 to 100 new students each year over the same period.

The Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton School District does not generate its own projections, but Superintendent Bryan Thygeson said they’ll run into space problems within the next five years if the steady growth they’ve experienced since 2006 continues.

In Fargo, Superintendent Jeff Schatz said developments in the south end of town have stretched elementary schools in the area almost to their breaking point. Schatz said he thinks the district’s middle and high schools will be able to handle a looming influx of students, but the district has kept up talks about the need for a new elementary school in southern Fargo.

“There’s no longer an opportunity to just move kids … because (the schools are) all full,” Schatz said.

For months, Fargo Public Schools officials have been holding community meetings to hash out a long-term plan for construction projects: building new schools and consolidating or repurposing old buildings.

Assistant Superintendent Wayne Kazmierczak said space is already at a premium in Moorhead elementary schools, and district officials expect Moorhead public school enrollment to increase by about 8 percent over the next five years.

But it’s too early to tell if the district needs to build a new school. Kazmierczak said he thinks the district can buy some time by renovating or adding to their existing schools, and waiting to see whether enrollment grows with their projections. Thygeson said the same may be true in Dilworth area schools.

Those projections could be affected by local changes to all-day kindergarten. Moorhead schools, which don’t offer all-day kindergarten, have lost dozens of students to private schooling or the neighboring Dilworth district, which has offered all-day kindergarten.

Thygeson guessed about 50 incoming kindergartners in his district come from Moorhead through open enrollment.

If Moorhead schools start offering all-day kindergarten – and Kazmierczak expects they will either this coming year or in 2014, when the state begins funding the programming – Kazmierczak said he thinks they’ll recapture some of those students.

Also, projections can change or prove wrong, officials said.

Schatz cautioned about the need to re-examine enrollment projections every year because the increases are driven primarily by a fast-growing economy.

“If that were to change in any way, we would have to adjust too,” Schatz said.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Kyle Potter at (701) 241-5502