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Helmut Schmidt, Published September 09 2013

2 sites eyed for Fargo southside elementary schools; debate on northside schools bogs down

FARGO – The Fargo School Board made progress Monday in cobbling together a long-range plan to build new elementary schools south of Interstate 94, focusing on putting a school in Ed Clapp Park and expanding the Eagles Center.

But the debate over what to do with aging elementary schools and excess classroom space north of I-94 has bogged down, at least temporarily.

Board members debated a motion offered by Robin Nelson to guarantee that Clara Barton/Hawthorne and Horace Mann/Roosevelt – schools that are “paired” and split the elementary grades between them – will stay open “for the foreseeable future.”

The board then approved an amendment offered by Kris Wallman to Nelson’s motion that inserted language to keep all of the district’s elementary schools open.

“Each of those schools we have now serves a valid purpose,” board member Paul Meyers said.

Nelson and other board members then protested that sparing all schools would prevent them from closing McKinley Elementary – seen by some on the board as too small and in need of expensive upgrades – and paint the board as unwilling to make tough decisions.

Board member Linda Boyd said that “if we look like we’re taking all the options off the table,” the public might not agree in a spring referendum to let the district keep its excess mill levy.

Board President Dinah Goldenberg said McKinley is too small – not quite two sections per grade – to provide an education equal to other district schools.

“I cannot in good conscience vote to add financial resources to that building,” she said.

Board member Jim Johnson said Nelson’s original motion would make residents of the Horace Mann/Roosevelt and Clara Barton/Hawthorne neighborhoods sleep easier, but “it shouldn’t be embedded in our long-range facilities plan.”

The board then tabled the issue until the costs of heating, ventilation and air-conditioning upgrades at McKinley, Madison, Clara Barton, Lewis and Clark, Roosevelt and Horace Mann schools are discussed.

Outlining a plan for handling the elementary growth south of Interstate 94 was a breeze by comparison.

The idea of building a new elementary school at Ed Clapp Park and expanding the Eagles Center into a full-sized elementary drew unanimous support.

In a series of votes, the board directed district staff to:

E Work with the Fargo Park District on determining what must yet be done before the district can build a four-section kindergarten through fifth-grade school in Ed Clapp Park.

E Work with architects on plans for a 40,000- to 45,000-square-foot addition to the Eagles Center to create a four-section K-5 school.

E Look for more available land to buy for elementary schools in south Fargo west of Interstate 29.

“I love the combination of Ed Clapp and the Eagles,” Boyd said.

“It provides the infill everyone was talking about” to create neighborhood schools in south Fargo, Superintendent Jeff Schatz said.

Business Manager Broc Lietz said it takes 15 to 18 months to build an elementary school, so if the School Board wants one or both schools ready by fall 2015, construction would have to start in the spring.

Some School Board members will tour the 10-acre Eagles Center site this afternoon.

“At the end of the day, I think we’ll need both” schools, Johnson said.

The school district owns a site sized for an elementary school east of Davies High School.

But board members agreed with Schatz’s assessment that it will be a few years before housing growth in that area will justify building there.

Lietz said construction costs for elementary schools can vary.

A 550-student elementary school building in West Fargo cost about $11.14 million completed and furnished, or $157.97 per square foot for the 70,500 square feet.

But a 76,623 square foot elementary building in Bismarck for 500 students costs $15.14 million, or $215 a square foot.

Some of the cost difference could be tied to when bids were let for the buildings, but some may also be due to Bismarck’s proximity to the state’s Oil Patch and competition for skilled laborers, Lietz said.

He said the proposed addition to the Eagles Center could cost about $7 million.

The School Board has several options to pay for school construction, Lietz said. It could:

- Use cash from the revenues produced by the building fund.

- Use cash balances in the building fund or the district’s ending fund balance.

- Establish a sinking and reserve levy, with taxpayer approval, to bond for construction.

- Increase the number of mills levied by the building fund.

- Increase the general fund mill levy, with taxpayer approval.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583