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West Fargo School District eyes possible building vote while facing program, staff cuts

WEST FARGO — West Fargo School District leaders are considering cuts to staff and programs next year if state lawmakers can't find more education money for the fast-growing district.

This comes even as district officials eye the possibility of asking voters as early as this fall to fund a third high school and third middle school to keep up with enrollment growth.

If state education funding remains flat, the district anticipates a budget shortfall of $4 million to $6 million next school year, which would prompt the cuts, said Superintendent David Flowers.

The district has a $122 million expense budget and 80 percent of that is staffing, Flowers said. Staffing and building operation expenses are increasing as the district continues to open new schools and facilities to accommodate rapid enrollment increases.

"We can certainly look at belt-tightening in other areas than staff," Flowers said. "We have increases in equipment costs, supply costs, technology. All of those things go up, too."

Consultants for the district have projected that the student population will grow by 60 percent in the next 10 years. Growth has been slower than initially expected, but Flowers said the district is still on track to add roughly 400 students each year.

While legislators have made no final funding decisions, they are considering a measure that could force West Fargo leaders to go to voters before they intended on proposed new school buildings.

House Bill 1435 would require school districts to place referendums on the ballot during state primaries or general elections during even-numbered years. It was first heard by the Senate Education Committee on March 14 and has been amended to allow a vote on bond referendums twice a year in an odd-numbered year.

If the bill passes, West Fargo may reconsider its approach to another bond referendum that Flowers estimated will be about $100 million.

The district's middle schools and high schools are expected to be at capacity by next fall. Flowers said by the 2017-18 school year, Liberty Middle School will be at its 1,200-student capacity. Sheyenne High School, the district's newest high school, will be at its 1,500-student capacity the following year. A year after the two schools reach capacity, they would likely be overcrowded.

"We are on the verge of needing to conduct another bond referendum," Flowers said. "Our original assumption was that we would conduct the election in early 2018. Under the provisions of this bill, we would either need to conduct the election already this fall or wait until June 2018. Waiting until June foregoes the ability to take advantage of that [2018] construction season."

West Fargo state lawmakers have hand in bill

Flowers said the timing of referendums can be crucial. West Fargo saw bond referendums fail in 2009 and 2010 before an $82.5 million referendum received 70 percent approval in 2011. Four years later, in 2015, 80 percent of voters approved a $98.1 million referendum that helped pay for two new elementary schools, a West Fargo High School auxiliary gym, a two-sheet ice hockey facility and a new aquatic center.

In recent votes, the district tried to balance projects geographically, building north and south of Interstate 94. If a third high school is built, it would likely be in the far southwest where the majority of growth has been in recent years.

The bill requiring school votes during primaries and general elections was authored by 10 lawmakers, including West Fargo Rep. Kim Koppelman and West Fargo Sen. David Clemens.

"Many times these bond issues are coming up for a school election probably in an odd month or off-year election and there isn't' much turnout," Clemens said. "The intent of this new bill is to make the election more accessible to more people. Certainly, more people are voting during the general election so they can have the opportunity to vote on the school bond issue."

Rep. Brandy Pyle, R-Casselton, said school districts are already limited to holding a referendum no more than twice in a year, and the bill will save taxpayers money.

"Elections cost a lot of money, thousands of dollars," Pyle said. "This is really in the interest of using taxpayer money."

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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