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Helmut Schmidt, Published July 20 2013

West Fargo group urges elementary school to be built without public vote

WEST FARGO – A planning group is recommending that the West Fargo School District build another elementary school with funds it has available, instead of taking the issue to the voters.

The School Board, which is expected to discuss the issue Monday, has wrestled with the decision for months as it deals with enrollments that have outpaced projections and building construction.

“I think there could be some lively discussion about this,” board President Kay Kiefer said.

“The issue is that balancing act between getting permission from our taxpayers to build buildings … with the fact that we’ve also heard loud and clear from constituents that there is a little bit of bond fatigue,” Kiefer said.

At the same time, the board must act fast.

“I think we really need to be mindful of the growth that is happening, and getting appropriate space for our students in a timely manner,” she said.

Many steps

Monday’s vote would be restricted to whether the School Board accepts the Long Range Facility Planning Task Force’s recommendation, or decides to go a different route.

Even if the recommendation is accepted, the project will require a series of actions by the board over the next few months before a final vote to build is taken, Business Manager Mark Lemer said.

Those actions include nailing down funding, expected to be a mix of savings from 2011’s $82.5 million school bond issue and using part of the district’s building fund levy; voter input and protest periods; hiring an architect; site development planning; and getting construction bids, he said.

A new 550-student elementary school could cost between $11 million and $13 million to build and outfit, district officials have said.

The district owns a 13-acre elementary school site along 52nd Avenue South, just north of the Deer Creek subdivision in an area that’s part of Fargo.

The first of two elementary schools authorized in 2011, Freedom Elementary, opened full in fall 2012.

The second school is going up at 3700 54th St. S. in Fargo. It may also be full when it opens in fall 2014.

Pluses, minuses

The task force weighed the pluses and minuses of whether to go to the voters for another bond issue.

The pluses of not holding a bond vote are that it lets the School Board act quickly and doesn’t involve a tax hike. It also avoids the possibility of seeing a bond issue defeated, with the board still forced to build a school.

Minuses include that voters might feel they have lost control of tax dollars, and a project would use building fund money that could go to building repairs or security upgrades.

An option the task force considered – packaging a school vote with a plan to add safety measures to schools and science classrooms at the elementary schools – was seen as offering something to all voters with a minor tax hike. But it, too, could be voted down and needs planning time.

Elementary school enrollment this fall is projected to be 4,409; 4,702 in fall 2014; and 5,183 in the 2018-19 school year, McKibben Demographic Research estimates.

Crowding at the elementary level led the board to vote to send southside fifth-graders to Liberty Middle School this fall.

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