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Committee to study exploding school enrollment in district

The West Fargo School Board could vote on a facilities plan by Aug. 10 that can accommodate the district's expected 60 percent growth in the next 10 years.

Superintendent David Flowers presented the school board with a timeline Monday for a community committee of about 40 staff, community leaders, parents and residents. The committee will meet five times, starting Wednesday.

Committee members will be expected to explore ways the district can keep up with student enrollment that is projected to grow by 500 to 600 students each year.

Flowers said the committee would study enrollment projections released earlier this year by consultants and then study what the district's needs are and how to pay for them.

The committee will be similar to a 40-member group formed in 2010 and composed of community and school board members who helped the 2011 referendum pass. That $82 million referendum helped pay for turning Sheyenne 9th Grade Center into a second high school, and construction of Freedom, Independence and Legacy elementary schools and Liberty Middle School.

The district faces overcrowding at the elementary level as early as the 2017-18 school year. To have another school open by 2017, the board needs to open bids in 2016 and have a referendum passed as early as this November.

By the committee's third meeting June 24, it is expected to identify building scenarios and request cost estimates from the district's architects.

Business Manager Mark Lemer has said the district could pass a referendum of up to $150 million without creating large tax increases for property owners. That is due to the added tax base of growing populations in West Fargo and the portion of Fargo in the West Fargo School District, and debts the school district will pay off in 2017 and 2020.

"The district could probably do a pretty heavy lift without increasing taxes," Flowers said. "We can do it without increasing taxes, but we also wouldn't give them a tax reduction when we get things paid off."

Flowers and his staff have spent the past few weeks informing staff from teachers to custodians and kitchen staff about the enrollment projections and asking their opinions. Flowers said Monday that most staff members have agreed the district should strive to improve deficiencies in the district and would support building.

While most staff members support a bond, Flowers found that only 56 percent live in the district.

"We did emphasize it's OK if they live outside the district. We still want them to understand," Flowers said Monday.

The recent demographic study predicted a third high school will likely be needed within six years. Figures show that West Fargo High School's enrollment could go from about 1,100 this year to 1,625 by 2019. By 2024, enrollment at the city's first high school could nearly double to 2,112 students. At Sheyenne High School,the school is expected to grow by more than 1,300 students by the year 2024.

The committee is also expected to explore possible grade configurations, adding an auxiliary gym at West Fargo High School, adding an indoor practice facility space, any scenarios that would allow the district to avoid building a third high school, such as opening a magnet school or other community programs that the school district could offer, and renovations at Lodoen.

Flowers said the committee will also look at the district's current food supplies and transportation plan because much of the population growth is south of Interstate 94 but the buses are all housed on the north side.

The committee will look at the how the district can accommodate a need for ice and a pool. The district has one indoor pool at L.E. Berger Elementary School.

By the committee's last meeting Aug. 5, the group will need to decide which plans the school board should decide on at its Aug. 10 meeting.

If the district approves a bond referendum, it could be in front of voters on the November general election ballot.

The committee will meet from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, June 24, July 15 and Aug. 5 at the West Fargo High School.

Wendy Reuer

Wendy reports for The Forum and West Fargo Pioneer, where she is also assistant editor. A University of Minnesota Morris graduate from North Dakota, Wendy started her career in television news and entertainment in Minnesota and at CBS in Television City, Calif. before working at newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota. 

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