Third time the charm?
The numbers are in, and the prognosis is as feared: if things don't change, the West Fargo School District will run out of space sooner rather than later.
According to an independent demographer's findings, projected West Fargo growth will add more than 1,800 students to the district by 2015.
West Fargo Public Schools is in a tight spot - literally.
Officials say the answer is to build more schools, and fast, but the district can't do it alone. They'll need help from taxpayers to pass a bond referendum; a notion that has failed the last two go-rounds.
Will the third time be the charm?
During a special meeting of the school board last Friday, members unanimously approved, 7-0, an $82.5 million building plan - the most expensive of four possibilities on the table - that would add much-needed space to the burgeoning district.
"In my mind, now is the time to move forward," board member David Olson said. "No matter what, it's the biggest bond referendum in the history of the district."
The funding for the referendum would go toward the following construction plans:
Two 550-student elementary schools at a cost of $22 million, of which one school would be built immediately, while the other would wait until the need arose.
A new $33.3 million, 1,200-student middle school.
A $26.8 million, 900-student addition to the Sheyenne Ninth Grade center, which would transform it into a second high school.
Renovations to West Fargo High School in the order of $400,000 to accommodate the addition of a ninth grade to the student body.
The chosen plan was weighed against three other options, which ranged from $62.2 million to $73.2 million, and involved variations of student numbers and building additions. But with the best interest of the future of the district in mind, board members said it would be shortsighted to possibly under-build and have to come back to the public for more construction bonds in a few years.
The plan is backed by both the West Fargo School Board members, as well as the Task Force commissioned to discuss the issues. It was not a quick or easy decision, however. West Fargo Superintendent David Flowers said that, to date, there have been roughly 24 hours of Task Force meeting and six focus groups.
But the work is far from over. In fact, it's just about to heat up. Also Friday, the board gave a preliminary bond referendum vote date of May 24. At a mere eight weeks away, that means the time for educating the public about what's at stake begins immediately.
One of the biggest hurdles and reasons for the past two bond failures, Olson said, largely stemmed from a trust issue, or lack thereof. Olson, who was a loud opponent to both past bonds, said he thinks things are different this time.
"Coming here and voting 'no' in the past, there was a trust factor involved, and a certain dislike of certain people in charge," he said. "But I think that's changed now."
Part of that change stems from Flowers and Business Manager Mark Lemer, who have spearheaded the bond referendum movement with thorough investigations and ample effort to listen to the public. Flowers' long range facility plan called for creating a Task Force, which was largely involved with the discussion and planning process during the past few months.
More recently, that Task Force and school administrators have broadened their circle of knowledge by including half a dozen open meetings to the public, which explained their decision-making process and laid the plans on the table.
Now, Flowers and the rest of the West Fargo administration hope the work was worthwhile.
At what cost?
Flowers knows that there is a certain group of people who will vote for the district no matter what. At that respect, there are some people who will never agree with the district's plan. He calls it the "20-60-20 rule."
Basically, there is 20 percent of the population on either end of the spectrum, he said. What the district needs to do is educate the undecided 60 percent to get their vote.
"The reasons the past bond failed are varied," he said. Apathy in vested voters was one culprit, he said. The tax increase also was considered unreasonable by some, and the consequences of failure were not fully understood by the public.
"We need to make this very clear this time," Flowers said.
Besides the projected population growth numbers, there are other numbers that come into play: cost.
An $82.5 million bond issue would add roughly 26 to 28 mills to the current levy, Lemer said, with a scheduled payback of 20 years.
If West Fargo residents vote "yes," property taxes would rise between $117 and $126 per year on a $100,000 home, which amounts to between $234 and $252 on a $200,000 home.
The current school district mill levy is 170.64 mills.
But proving that the cost is warranted will be the next challenge, officials said. Board member Kay Kiefer put things in perspective.
"I had a freshman at one time who went to the lunchroom and didn't have a place to sit," she said. "Situations like that aren't good," though they may become more common if the growth projections continue without additional buildings to contain the masses.
Angela Korsmo may have best put the board's thoughts into perspective, however.
"No educational decision should be based on money; it should be based on the kids," she said.