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Study shows city may need third high school, more elementary schools

Students eat lunch Jan. 21 at Liberty Middle School in West Fargo. Photo by Carrie Snyder

The West Fargo School District will soon have to decide how it will handle a 65 percent enrollment increase in the next 10 years, which would mean building new schools, including a third high school, despite opening a school each year for the past four years.

Superintendent David Flowers presented the results of a demographics study by Kansas-based consultants RSP Associates to the School Board on Monday night. RSP is the same consultant used by the district in 2010 for a five-year enrollment projection.

The new study predicts the district will continue to add between 400 and more than 600 students each year, with an average growth of 545 students each year through the next 10 years. It predicts West Fargo schools will go from about 9,100 this year to 14,552 students in the 2024-25 school year.

West Fargo school enrollment could soon eclipse enrollment in Fargo, which now has 11,200 students, Flowers said.

“So, we’d be larger than Fargo is now,” he said. “Fargo will continue to grow, just not at the same rate.”

The middle schools and high schools will begin to feel the pressure of enrollment growth by the 2017-18 school year. The two high schools have a maximum capacity of 1,550 students but a preferred capacity of 1,300.

In 2017-18, about 1,472 students are expected to enroll at West Fargo High School, a big increase from the 1,115 students there this year. About 1,170 students are expected to enroll at Sheyenne High School, which will graduate its first class of seniors in spring 2017.

The study predicts about 1,625 students will attend West Fargo High School by 2019 and 1,391 at Sheyenne under the current boundary system. By 2024, 2,317 students would attend Sheyenne High School and 2,112 at West Fargo High School.

A majority of the district’s elementary schools will reach capacity over the next 10 years, but Aurora, Berger, Eastwood, Freedom and Independence will likely experience the most pressure, Flowers said.

Board member Shauna Vistad said space would also be needed in schools if the state Legislature mandates preschool classes in school districts, an issue it is expected to consider this session.

The high rate of growth means the district will likely have to accommodate that by building new schools.

“A high school is the most expensive thing a school district can undertake,” Flowers said.

If it decides to build, the district will likely have to ask voters to approve another bond referendum. The district last passed an $82.5 million bond package in 2011. It helped build Freedom, Independence and Legacy elementary schools, Liberty Middle School and expanded Sheyenne Ninth Grade Center and West Fargo High School.

“Within three school years, we’re going to have to provide space at every level,” said School Board member Dave Olson. “Most buildings, take at least two school years to construct. If we have to present any kind of plan to get voter support that is almost a school year. We’re right there, right now.”

Olson pointed out that if the district needs to build new schools, it needs to start looking for more land immediately.

“We should be scrambling around now looking for land,” Flowers said.

He said what the Legislature does this year may greatly affect the school district.

Under current law, the district qualifies for rapid growth dollars if enrollment increases by 4 percent. Last year, 2 percent of the district growth was not aided by state funds because the district grew by 6 percent.

“We got nothing for 2 percent,” Flowers said. “We’re growing by more than a district in North Dakota terms every year, and we run the risk of not being funded.”

Olson said he constantly hears about the needs of western North Dakota, but he would argue the needs of fast-growing West Fargo schools are just as critical.

“By law we have to educate those kids and house them and teach them,” he said. “We were lucky the voters gave us what they did the last go-round.”

Olson said the district will also need to consider how to add extracurricular needs of students such as more ice and pool space.

“The board is committed to supporting a quality education system for this community, and when you grow to this size, you have to accommodate things that provide opportunities for the kids,” Flowers said.

The board has scheduled a workshop at 5 p.m. Feb. 18 to begin work on a long-range facilities plan.

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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