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Voters head to polls Tuesday on school referendum

Valerie Fiske places a school bond sign in a West Fargo yard Friday. Fiske is leading the community “vote yes” committee. Photo by David Samson 1 / 2
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The little feedback West Fargo School District officials have received about Tuesday's $98.1 million bond referendum has been mostly positive.

Superintendent David Flowers hopes the small amount of comments is not a sign of apathy because the district will need 60 percent of voters to say "yes" to approve the bond.

If approved, the $98.1 million in tax money will pay for a new aquatic facility, a two-sheet ice rink and multipurpose facility, two new elementary schools— one north of Interstate 94 and one south of I-94—and improvements and additions to existing schools.

The new facilities will help accommodate the fast-growing school district, which has been on an upward trajectory of 400 to 500 students each year with no sign of stopping. The district expects to see student enrollment grow by 60 percent in the next 10 years.

While most of the city's growth has been south of I-94, schools north of the interstate are also facing a space crunch, so the district was careful to craft a referendum that will include amenities for both sides of town, Flowers said.

"It's all about doing what's best for our kids, our community," said Valerie Fiske.

Fiske has been helping head the WF VOICE committee, a districtwide grass-roots effort to promote the "vote yes" message. No organized campaign opposing the referendum has surfaced.

"If you look at the district plan and you look at it closely, it's pretty even 50 percent [planned projects] north of I-94 and 50 percent south," she said. "Why would anybody say 'no.' This is a really good opportunity for the district, our kids and our community."

The plan includes two big nonschool pieces: a new indoor community pool and new ice arena.

The aquatic facility will be placed on land south of L.E. Berger Elementary School at 631 4th Ave. E., where inside the district's sole indoor pool is now.

Flowers said the 40-year-old indoor pool cannot keep up with demand for its use. The bond includes $18.5 million for a facility that will have a 52-meter competition pool along with a warm-water pool that can be used by seniors and community programs.

UP Aquatics, a metro area community group, hoped to raise about $4 million that would pay for enhancements to the proposed pool plan.

The group, along with the West Fargo Hockey Association, had until Nov. 1 to commit to raising the funds for enhancements to the district's plans.

Karen Nitzkorski, UP Aquatics lead fundraiser, said unnamed corporate and private sponsors, including one large donation of about $1 million and some large contributions of $500,000 and $100,000, helped the group raise more than $2.4 million as of press time. That may be enough for the district to build a 66-meter pool, a size needed to host tournaments and community events as well as have room for two schools to practice at the same time.

"Even without our support, it will be a beautiful facility. It's just a matter of what level we can take it to," Nitzkorski said. "We'll increase programming for the community by going to that bigger level."

Flowers said the district's architects are working on drawing up new plans that would include what the additional money can pay for. He also plans to meet with the group to sign a formal agreement for additional funding.

"I've said publicly that the taxpayers can't be on the hook for promises; we have to have some sort of agreement that the money will actually be there," Flowers said.

If the bond is approved, UP Aquatics would turn to the public for future private fundraising efforts in an attempt to hit the $4 million mark.

"We'll do a bigger splash after the vote," Nitzkorski said. "We feel very pleased with our efforts and we'll see if we can make this work."

Location, location

Flowers said he does not expect the West Fargo Hockey Association will kick in additional funding for the planned $16.5 million two-sheet ice facility, but the group is working with the VOICE group to endorse a "yes" vote for the overall bond.

The ice facility would be placed somewhere on the south side of I-94 but, unlike the aquatics facility, the exact location has not yet been identified.

"We do own land, but we're assessing whether any of those locations we own would be suitable for that kind of facility," Flowers said.

The district is also still sizing up its land options for where it will build a northside elementary school if the bond passes. Flowers said the district is in discussions with landowners on the north side but declined to specify what locations the district is eyeing to avoid impacting those negotiations.

South of I-94, the district bought 10.97 acres in the Brooks Harbor area, near 23th Avenue West and Sheyenne Street, for about $38,000 an acre in September. There, the school district expects to build an elementary school large enough to hold three classrooms of each grade, kindergarten through grade five.

The referendum would also help pay for the conversion of Osgood Kindergarten Center into a K-5 neighborhood school. The district aims to do away with its current model of kindergarten centers and make all elementary schools kindergarten through grade five.

Flowers said while there are enough buildings on the north side, they are too close together to serve the district properly. For example, students who live near West Acres shopping mall have to be bused to Westside Elementary school because they do not have a nearby neighborhood school.

"The schools on the north side are at capacity pretty much, and one of the things we want to accomplish is getting neighborhood schools back," Flowers said.

Turning away from kindergarten centers would also free up space at the The Lodoen Center, which currently houses Community High School, a kindergarten center and the West Fargo Public LIbrary.

The city library's lease ends in 2017, but Flowers said if the kindergarten center were to move out of Lodoen, it would leave room for a future preschool site and the library could remain.

"As a K-5 school, it's [Lodeon's] just too close to Berger and South [elementary schools]. It couldn't have its own neighborhood without taking away from the others," he said.

Tax Impact

If the bond is approved, taxpayers won't see an increase in their tax bill, district officials say. Due to the city's growth, coupled with rising home values and school district debt that will be paid off, it will allow the proposed mill levy to stay at 29.63 mills, which is about $133 on a $100,000 home.

Flowers has likened passing the bond to buying a new car after paying off another. Instead of making the last car payment, you continue making payments of the same amount. You don't have additional disposable income, but you didn't increase outgoing payments and you have one more car, he said.

Looking back and ahead

The school board in September approved sending the bond to voters. Since then, the district has held multiple informational meetings that only a handful of residents have attended.

Flowers and school board members said they have gotten very few calls or emails concerning the vote.

Fiske and about 15 other community members who comprise the VOICE group have been meeting regularly since the referendum was approved but waited to roll out their signs and a door-knocking campaign until last week.

Fiske said, since then, she has been helping inform residents about the bond and placed signs across the district, which spans all of West Fargo, Horace, Harwood and parts of Fargo.

Fiske also helped with the district's last successful bond in 2011, when 70 percent of voters approved an $82 million bond that helped pay for turning Sheyenne 9th Grade Center into a second high school, as well as construction of Liberty Middle School and Freedom, Independence and Legacy elementary schools.

If this year's bond does not pass, Flowers said the district will go back to the drawing board and consider other plans, possibly another referendum in the near future.

"Certainly if we don't have another elementary school on the south side by this spring, then we're going to be challenged to have room just for our growth on the south side," he said. "There will be no neighborhood schools, West Fargo High School would not have access to another gym and schools would continue to be overcrowded."

If the bond passes, the district may still have to return to voters in a few years and ask for funding to build a third high school and third middle school.

Earlier this year, a 40-person community group identified $200 million in wish list projects for the district to accommodate growth, but decided to break the bond referendum into two parts. While Flowers initially expected a second bond to come as soon as 2017, he is now focusing on current district needs.

AT A GLANCE

If the school bond passes, construction would start in 2016 on:

• $13.75 million new elementary school in the Brooks Harbor area

• $18.5 million pool and a remodel of the existing L.E. Berger pool

• $7.3 million additions to West Fargo High School, including an auxiliary gym, multi use space and other classroom additions;

• $4.4 million addition to Berger Elementary School and additions that will start at a later date

• $16.5 million ice facility.

The bond would also pay for projects in 2017 and 2018 that include:

• $15.4 million three-section north side elementary school;

• $2.25 conversion of Osgood Kindergarten Center to a kindergarten- through-fifth- grade school;

• $2 million addition to Horace Elementary School;

• $7 million transportation facility and central maintenance building;

• $1.75 million central kitchen;

• $1.1 million musical space addition to Cheney Middle School;

Ongoing projects will be:

• $525,000 standardizing and upgrading all elementary playgrounds

• $1 million increased security measures

• $145,000 upgrade sound systems

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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