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West Fargo public to vote

In less than a week, West Fargo residents once again will be asked to return to the voting booth.

On Tuesday, an $82.5 million West Fargo Public Schools building referendum will be on the ballots. If this sounds familiar, that's because it is: this is third time a school building bond referendum has been put up to a public vote. The last two attempts failed after receiving less than the required 60-percent super majority.

First brought to light in January, the proposed building plan has been a work in progress, involving input from community members, district staff and administrators. It also was one of Superintendent David Flower's main objectives when he began working at WFPS.

Flowers began by implementing a Task Force to help drive the effort. Its mission was to digest as much information as possible about WFPS in order to discover the ins and outs of the district's building needs.

Through the help of public input meetings, as well as population densities and projections from an independent demographer, the Task Force decided on the following plan to best meet the school district's needs:

• Two 550-student elementary schools at a cost of $22 million, of which one $11 million school would be built immediately, while the other will wait until the need arises. Construction of the first elementary school will begin this summer, with completion by next fall.

• A new $33.3 million, 1,200-student middle school, to begin construction next spring and open in the fall of 2013.

• A $26.8 million, 900-student addition to the Sheyenne Ninth Grade center, which would transform it into a second high school. Construction would start next spring and open in the fall of 2013. Construction of a gym and fine arts wing would begin in the spring of 2013, with completion by fall 2014.

• Renovations to West Fargo High School in the order of $400,000 to accommodate the addition of a ninth grade to the student body.

The chosen plan was weighed against three other options, which ranged from $62.2 million to $73.2 million, and involved variations of student numbers and building additions. But with the best interest of the future of the district in mind, board members said it would be shortsighted to possibly under-build and have to come back to the public for more construction bonds in a few years.

According to enrollment projections discovered by the demographer, WFPS could see its student population increase approximately 26 percent at the secondary level, and 28 percent at the elementary level during the next five years. At the moment, the district is at or near capacity in many of its schools. Enrollment is projected to increase from 7,200 students in 2010-11, to more than 9,000 by 2015.

The approval of the bond would result in the sale of $82.5 million in general obligation bonds. To pay off the bonds, the district will need to assess 27.5 mills. To put things in perspective, owners of a $100,000 home would see their taxes increase by $123.75 per year for the next 20 years. Likewise, owners of $150,000 homes would see a $185.63 increase, while a $200,000 home will be taxed $247.50 per year.

Bond referendum monies need to be sufficient to cover construction costs for school facilities, architect and engineering fees, furniture, fixtures and equipment. Money also will come from the district's general fund and special reserve fund to cover new staff and operation costs once construction is complete. According to district projections, it will be possible to staff and operate the new facilities as planned based on costs versus revenues during the next five years. However, budgets will be stretched, administrators said, with minimal or modest increases to all areas of the operational budget.

If the bond were to fail, Flowers said there are contingency plans available. The earliest impact of growth in the student population will be felt at the elementary level, where an additional school is needed south of Interstate 94 by the 2012-13 school year.

If adequate space at every level isn't met, however, WFPS would be forced to look at other options, such as increased class sizes, renting space in West Fargo or Fargo, purchasing portable classrooms, and changing to a shift-based operation.

Poll sites for Tuesday's school building referendum vote will open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. One precinct will be in operation for the entire district, which will allow eligible voters to participate at any polling location. These locations are:

• Harwood City Office, 2950 Ruud Road.

• Westside Elementary School, 945 7th Ave. West, West Fargo.

• Veterans Memorial Arena (adjacent to West Fargo High School), 1201 7th Ave. East, West Fargo.

• Horace Senior Center, 214 Thue Court.

• Sheyenne Ninth Grade Center, 800 40th Ave. East, West Fargo

• Aurora Elementary, 3420 9th St. West, West Fargo.