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Helmut Schmidt, Published July 25 2013

Fargo School Board considers 'repurposing' McKinley Elementary, shifting central elementaries into North feeder

FARGO – Repurposing McKinley Elementary School, building an elementary school at Ed Clapp Park and shifting southside elementary schools into the North High School feeder system are all ideas that gained traction with Fargo School Board members Thursday as they grappled with cobbling together a 10-year facilities plan.

Meanwhile, the district’s paired elementary schools, Clara Barton/Hawthorne and Horace Mann/Roosevelt, may avoid consolidation or repurposing.

With strong, united opposition from the neighborhoods to closing the schools, most board members seemed willing to let well enough alone.

“If they’re not broke, don’t fix them,” Board member Kris Wallman said.

The School Board met for more than seven hours with administrators in a conference room at Davies High School on the city’s far south side.

No definitive decisions were made, but many of the ideas presented will be worked up by administrators in the next few weeks to determine their costs and how effectively they move students around the district.

“We at least have some direction,” Superintendent Jeff Schatz said.

“This is a process, not an event,” Schatz said. “We’re doing due diligence. There are no final decisions at this point about anything.”

The idea of repurposing McKinley Elementary – perhaps as a preschool – and sending its 195 students to nearby Longfellow and Washington elementary schools, found little opposition.

Several board members appeared to agree that the option was a viable way to fill underused classrooms elsewhere on the north side, especially since McKinley would need to have classrooms added to be a true two-section school, and perhaps $2 million in heating and air conditioning system improvements to meet district standards.

Board President Dinah Goldenberg said the option needs to be explored in case it turns out to be the fix for several enrollment and budget issues.

“This is about the whole district. … What do we do that’s in the long-term best interest of all of our students?” she said.

But board members Paul Meyers and John Strand were perplexed about the idea of closing the only school on the north side that is at capacity for students.

“Where did this conversation on McKinley come from?” Strand asked. “I’m just kind of torn about McKinley being torn apart.”

“I don’t think we have a problem at McKinley,” Meyers added.

Focused on the south

Topping the agenda for several board members: finding a fix for rapid enrollment growth on the district’s south side.

Several southside elementary schools, most notably Kennedy Elementary, have seen student numbers swell in recent years.

“Unless it’s health and safety, my highest priority is south Fargo first,” Strand said. “We desperately need a new school.”

Board members received good news on that front: Soil tests at Ed Clapp Park, just north of 32nd Avenue South, show that an elementary school can be built there – even a two-story building – as long as it is well-placed and has good footings.

That would provide a neighborhood school for the Bluemont Lakes subdivision, and could draw students away from Kennedy, Lewis and Clark and Centennial elementary schools, Schatz said, solving crowding issues.

Board member Jim Johnson called for a “Plan B” for the Ed Clapp site in case negotiations for the site, owned by the Fargo Park District, fall through.

Schatz said the board could decide to build an elementary school just east of Davies High School, which would require adding dirt to bring it to an elevation of 44 feet.

Or the district could build an addition to the Eagles Education Center and turn it into a “pocket” elementary school with three classes per grade.

Schatz said the five-plus acres of land where the Eagles building sits is as big or bigger than several of the district’s other elementary schools.

Major boundary reset?

School boundaries also consumed a lot of attention.

Johnson pushed strongly for having one or more elementary schools – Jefferson and/or the paired Clara Barton/Hawthorne –moved from the South High School feeder system to the Ben Franklin Middle School/North High feeder system in the next decade.

Johnson said unless more students are put on the track to become Spartans, North could see its numbers dip below where it can offer the same advanced placement and elective courses as the district’s other two comprehensive high schools.

“Our first priority must be being sure we have a viable comprehensive high school on the north side,” Johnson said.

Johnson also suggested creating magnet programs at North and Ben Franklin Junior High to encourage students from the central and south parts of Fargo to travel north for classes.

At the same time, rapid growth in enrollment in the Discovery Middle School/Davies area will soon lead to crowding there, and require moving one or more schools from that enrollment area into the South High system, board member Rick Steen said.

Heated discussion

Board members debated the value of air conditioning in schools, with some saying all students should be able to learn in a comfortable environment.

Every child “should be able to access an education, rather than cooking,” Wallman said in defense of fixing the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems at several schools.

In addition to McKinley Elementary, the following five elementary schools may need new HVAC systems installed, an expensive proposition:

E Lewis and Clark Elementary, $3.8 million.

E Horace Mann Elementary, $2.4 million.

E Clara Barton Elementary, $2,975,000.

E Roosevelt Elementary, $2.6 million.

E Madison Elementary, $2.35 million.

Johnson urged the board to consider adding just air conditioning units to schools that don’t have air handling problems. It would provide cool air in early- and late-summer heat for classrooms without the expenses that would make building a new school look like a better option than the upgrades, he said.

In addition to the HVAC price tag, the district will also need about $24.2 million in other maintenance at its schools through 2023, documents show.

Meyers suggested delaying a decision on the HVAC upgrades for all the schools that could need systems, and instead focus on fixing the HVAC systems in two schools it knows will stay open, while deciding on the others.

Schatz said it will take a couple of months more of decision-making and getting input from the public before the district has a new facilities plan.

“This is a process. To get it right, it’s going to take some time,” he said.

Goldenberg said the School Board is committed to seeing that process through.

Short-term solutions are in place for southside enrollment issues, she said.

Kennedy Elementary enrollment will be eased for a couple of years by sending the youngest Bluemont Lakes students to the Eagles Center, she said.

“I’m encouraged by what came out today,” Goldenberg said. “We’re focusing on all the many parts of the district” to make a good long-term plan.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583