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Third West Fargo high school, middle school effort on back burner for now

WEST FARGO—Efforts to seek voter approval to build a third high school and third middle school in this fast-growing school district are on the back burner for now, school officials told The Forum on Monday.

Just a few months ago, West Fargo School District leaders were crunching enrollment numbers and nervously watching proposed legislation that would have limited school districts from seeking a bond referendum outside of primary elections. School officials considered fast-tracking a more than $100 million voter request by fall to beat the law from impacting when they could hold such a vote.

But after watching the bill fail and receiving more modest enrollment projections compared to previous summer projections, West Fargo school district administrators say efforts to make the case for another high school and middle school can wait—at least for a while.

"We're not feeling the pressure right now," Superintendent David Flowers said during a meeting with Forum Editorial Board members on Monday, June 26.

Flowers said while the pressure to fast-track any bond issue is off, the possibility of another such effort may be needed in the next year or two.

West Fargo has been trying to keep up with a booming student enrollment, which surpassed 10,000 last year and was projected to grow 60 percent in the next 10 years.

While voters overwhelmingly approved the $98.1 bond in 2015 that allowed the district to build two new elementary schools, an aquatic center, hockey arena, transportation facility, central kitchen and numerous additions and remodels of existing schools, district officials expected to ask voters for a roughly $100 million bond that would pay for a third middle and high school one day.

Projections by the district estimate middle schools and high schools to be at capacity by fall 2018. By next school year, Liberty Middle School, which serves students south of Interstate 94, would be at its 1,200-student capacity. Sheyenne High School, the district's newest high school south of I-94, will be at its 1,500-student capacity the following year. A year after the two schools reach capacity, they would likely be overcrowded.

West Fargo High School and Cheney Middle School, both serving students north of I-94, remain steady and consistent in their enrollment, Flowers said.

The West Fargo School Board paid RSP Associates $17,000 to project student growth during the next five years. It is the same firm the district used in the 2014-15 school year to estimate enrollment before asking voters for the 2015 bond referendum. RSP recently finished its latest projections, which Flowers said do not show the drastic middle and high school increases as previously expected. While Liberty Middle School will soon be facing capacity issues, enrollment may not be high enough or sustained for long enough to warrant building a new school, he said.

District Business Manager Mark Lemer said, for example, once current second-graders—the largest class currently in the district with 900 students—reach high school, it could cause over-crowding. However, once those students graduate and smaller classes move up the ranks, the crowding issues may resolve themselves.

"We may have to have some creative solutions at the middle school level, but I think we can figure it out," Lemer said.

The district staff will provide the school board with final projections from RSP in August followed by 2017-18 enrollment numbers by September, which will paint a clearer picture.

Flowers said one of the big unknowns right now is how Sanford's new hospital in southwest Fargo may impact enrollment in West Fargo schools, since Sanford is such a big employer and many of those employees may want to live near where they work.

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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