Bonds, Boundaries, and Budgets --EMDASH-- Challenges of a Growing District
It is far preferable to be leading and a part of a dynamic, growing community and school district rather than a stagnant or declining one, but it does have its challenges. Among the challenges resulting from our relentless growth are what I would categorize as "bonds, boundaries, and budgets."
Bonds—Our school district has been growing 400-500 students per year since I came to the district, and it had been growing prior to my coming in 2010. The district had attempted two bond referendums that failed. A Long Range Facility Planning Task Force made up of community members, parents, administrators, and board members worked in 2010-11, and recommended to the School Board that they ask the voters to support $82.5 million. It takes a 60% majority to approve such a referendum, and in May 2011, 70 percent supported the referendum. That vote triggered construction of three elementary schools, Liberty Middle School, additions to Sheyenne Ninth Grade Center to convert it to a Nine-12 grade high school, and renovations and additions to West Fargo High School to accommodate ninth graders. Yet the growth continued. Another Long Range Planning Task Force was convened in 2015. Ultimately, a second referendum asking for $98.1 million was approved in November of 2015. It was approved by nearly 80 percent of the voters. It triggered construction of Brooks Harbor Elementary; Willow Park Elementary (currently under construction); the conversion of Osgood Kindergarten Center into a K-5 elementary; additions and renovations at Berger Elementary and Horace Elementary; refurbished playgrounds; additions at West Fargo High and Cheney Middle School; construction of the Hulbert Aquatic Center and the West Fargo Sports Arena; a new transportation facility (currently under construction); impending renovations at the existing transportation, maintenance, and warehouse facilities to create a new central kitchen; remodeling at Lodoen Community Center; and a number of school safety provisions. Even with all of this activity, enrollment projections show the district exceeding capacity at the elementary, middle, and high school levels overall and particularly on the south side over the next couple of years. In response, the School Board commissioned yet another planning task force which began work in November, with a targeted reporting date to the School Board in March or April 2018.
Boundaries—A school district cannot grow as quickly as ours, add new neighborhoods and new schools, without changing school boundaries. The School Board approved new boundaries for the 2018-19 school year and beyond in November. The new boundaries will require a little over 900 students, or about 20 percent of our elementary children, to attend new or different schools. The new boundaries eliminate a transition, however, so kindergarten children no longer have to ride a bus to their neighborhood school and then board another bus to get to the kindergarten centers. We believe that the new boundaries offer a good chance at longer term stability, though we understand that changing boundaries is a hardship and a challenge for some children and families.
Budgets—Our School Board has done a remarkable job managing the growth of the school district. This has been made more challenging by the way growing school districts are funded through the state. Since about 2007, when most districts in the state were declining in enrollment, the legislature determined that districts would be funded based on the previous year's enrollment. This was a gift to declining districts. Today, it creates a challenge for growing districts. The legislature created a rapid enrollment grant, which this year was to provide growing districts a little less than half of the foundation aid for new students over 2 percent growth. Our district grew 546 students, and should have received $4,000 for 345 of the new students (those over 2 percent growth.) Because the state underestimated the number of new students in the state, they have reduced the payment to $2,350 per students—less than 1/3 of the amount we would receive if we were paid for the students we are actually staffing for and serving.
In spite of the challenges of bonds, boundaries, and budgets, we have been able to build new facilities without raising the mill levy, offer raises to employees, and present a budget with a small surplus to the School Board.