Helmut Schmidt, Published September 24 2013
Fargo School Board decides to keep all elementary schools open
The board also voted to have district staff develop a plan to air condition six elementary schools without air conditioning – Clara Barton, Lewis and Clark, Roosevelt, Horace Mann, Madison and McKinley.
Thomas Lawrence, who was part of an audience of about 50 people, had gathered more than 300 signatures from area residents on a petition to keep the existing schools open.
The vote to not shutter schools, the McKinley area resident said, made him happy “that we’ll be able to keep our neighborhood school.”
The vote on the issue of what schools to keep open was delayed two weeks from the last board meeting.
At that time, a plan floated to close McKinley, one of the district’s smallest schools, was seen as a way to save money and give its students a more equitable education.
Board member Robin Nelson had called for protecting the paired Clara Barton/Hawthorne and Horace Mann/Roosevelt schools, which share grades between them.
But several other board members wanted to keep all of the elementary schools open.
The vote was delayed until after a report on the costs of adding air conditioning to the six elementary was presented Tuesday, along with the district’s estimates for annual maintenance expenses.
But after more than an hour of hearing reports, board member Kris Wallman said she didn’t want to decide on whether to put air conditioning in schools before deciding what schools would definitely stay open.
“I think it puts the cart before the horse,” Wallman said.
District administrators originally said McKinley could be closed, and its students absorbed by the larger Longfellow and Washington elementary schools.
But since the plan was proposed, Superintendent Jeff Schatz said new information from city officials indicates there is hope for housing growth in north Fargo that could bring more children there and fill available classrooms.
Schatz said his latest recommendation would be “to not decommission McKinley at this point,” adding that growth in Fargo is “very unpredictable.”
Nelson said the board could hold off on closing McKinley, and reconsider in five years whether to add on to the school. She said it’s premature to add classrooms to McKinley now.
Board member Jim Johnson said he doesn’t think that “in the foreseeable future we’ll close any building.”
Still, Johnson suggested a backup strategy for re-purposing schools like McKinley.
“What good community purpose serving the needs of the district can we use (McKinley) for?” he asked, suggesting that perhaps it could become a pre-kindergarten center 10 years from now, keeping a school presence there to bolster the neighborhood.
Board member John Strand said he was glad that Schatz “advises us not to close McKinley school. I’m confident we’re going to land where our principles are.”
Paul Meyers took a more wry approach to applauding the board’s shift to keep McKinley and the other schools open.
The argument “has moved from, ‘We’re probably going to have to close this school,’ to, ‘It’s a no-brainer” to keep it open,’ ” Meyers said.
“I, too, am on the side of the no brains,” he said.
The key to the board’s decision to keep all of its elementary schools open was more information, School Board President Dinah Goldenberg said.
“We have to do the best we can on the information we have,” she said after the meeting. “We don’t want to make irreversible decisions that will hurt later.”
Board members appeared to have a consensus that they wanted district staff to plan to add induction displacement air conditioning systems to the buildings.
Estimates to add those systems to the schools are: Clara Barton, $1.9 million; Lewis and Clark, $2.4 million; Roosevelt, $1 million; Horace Mann, $1.8 million; Madison, $1.33 million; and McKinley, $1.4 million.
Readers can reach Forum reporter
Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583