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Helmut Schmidt, Published October 26 2013

Fargo growth, schools on opposite ends of city

FARGO – A couple of things stuck out when a map of the city’s potential growth areas was recently presented to the Fargo School Board.

One: Most of the schools in the district are north of Interstate 94.

Two: The vast bulk of current and potential housing growth in the district is in the far south and southwest, where two schools will likely need to be built in the next few years.

With the school board vowing to keep all of its elementary schools open, and perhaps $25 million needed for a new elementary school and air conditioning retrofits, a question hangs: Can this all work?

Call it optimism, faith or just letting bets ride, but board members say the newest facilities plan will work with the uncertainties.

“I don’t have a magic wand or a crystal ball. I don’t know whether all of that (expected housing) will materialize. None of us know that,” board President Dinah Goldenberg said.

The numbers game

The district has 10 elementary schools north of Interstate 94, with six north of Main Avenue and four between I-94 and Main.

Earlier this summer, the board flirted with closing McKinley Elementary and sending its students to Longfellow and Washington

elementary schools to save money and soak up extra classroom capacity. That idea was later dropped.

There are four elementary schools south of I-94, though the Eagles Center, once used for early childhood special education and Head Start, now houses elementary students from the Bluemont Lakes area.

Board member Rick Steen said the decision to keep all of the elementary schools open is part of “a numbers game” balancing the money needed to support the buildings, enrollments and housing trends.

There are more schools on the north side, he said, but they are mostly small schools with two and three classes per grade. Southside elementary schools such as Kennedy and Bennett have four and five classes per grade and hold twice as many students, he said.

The board passed on closing older or smaller schools north of I-94 after concluding they still work for education, are paid for, and that the closings wouldn’t save much cash.

“We’re not talking millions of dollars in savings,” Steen said.

A game-changer?

District staff recently learned that three housing developments are planned for north Fargo. With houses and apartments come kids, and that could make the idea of closing a school in north Fargo look very bad, Steen and Goldenberg say.

“If all that comes through, with young families, who knows? Someone could say we need a school on the north side,” Goldenberg said. “Nothing is forever, and if things stay the same and growth starts to happen on the north side, we’ll need those buildings. We need to give it a little more time before we make decisions that are irreversible.”

The announcement of the northside housing developments may also have been a game-changer in getting board members to remove a reference in the facilities plan to moving central-city fifth-graders from Jefferson and Clara Barton/Hawthorne schools into Ben Franklin Middle School and North High School to bolster dipping northside enrollments.

“If the economy changes and the growth doesn’t continue, those options are always there,” board member John Strand said.

Steen said the district’s building fund, and restructuring some debt, will bear the cost of adding air conditioning to six elementary schools with a price tag of $10 million to $11 million and for a new elementary school in Ed Clapp Park at $12 million to $14 million.

The Ed Clapp school, while not a done deal with the Park District and neighbors, is the first of two elementary schools planned for construction in five to six years on the south side, the facilities plan states.

Demographers at Kansas-based RSP and Associates estimate Fargo’s public schools will add 200 new students a year for the next five years, Steen said.

Superintendent Jeff Schatz said the district may also build an elementary school east of Davies High School in a handful of years.

In March, the district will also ask voters to allow it to keep its mill levy authority.

A law passed by the Legislature in 2009 requires a vote by Dec. 31, 2015, to approve a mill levy of more than 110 mills.

The district’s budget for 2013-14 calls for levying about 139 general fund mills, Business Manager Broc Lietz said.

The school board last week signed off on ballot language asking for up to 150 mills in taxing authority for the general fund.

If voters won’t allow what the state calls the “excess mil levy,” revenue the district brings in from existing properties will be frozen until, over time, the dollars collected are equivalent to 110 mills, Lietz said. That would cost the district millions of dollars annually.

The whole – buildings, demographics and the levy vote – makes for “a lot of moving parts,” Steen said.

Goldenberg hopes the public will support the school board’s decision-making about those parts.

“Most of the decisions we’ve made are the ones that our public, the vocal public, are asking for,” she said. “I think that they will understand that if they want us to carry through those decisions [and the other operations] that they will support our financial needs.”

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