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Growth spurt for schools is here: District ponders future as more students coming into the system

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news Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

BEMIDJI — Nine years ago, there were 1,965 K-6 students enrolled in Bemidji Area Schools.

Today, there are 2,350.

The district has rearranged programs, reopened the kindergarten center and leased additional space to find more classroom space. But temporary fixes can only take the district so far, leaders argue, and there are more children coming into the system in future years.

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“Growth in the next five years is going to be more aggressive than the last five (years),” said Chris Leinen, director of business services, at a Monday evening work session with the School Board.

In 2007-08, the district had 366 kindergarteners, which stemmed in large part from 384 births in the local zip code in 2002, according to district data.

Enrollments inched upward to 387 in 2008-09 following 373 births in 2003.

Birth rates are used in conjunction with demographers’ trend reports to predict future enrollments. Bemidji long has been growing, as evidenced by the 2010 Census, which showed that from 2000 to 2010, population in the city limits alone grew by 12.7 percent, increasing from 11,917 to 13,431.

With new residents come new students: In 2010-11 for Bemidji Area Schools, there were 423 kindergartners and, this year, there are about 470.

“We need more classroom space for kids. That has not changed. In fact, it has intensified,” said Jim Hess, district superintendent.

The discussion Monday — no action is taken at work sessions — kicked off what likely will become a months-long debate about whether to seek voter approval to construct a new school and, if so, what grades that school should serve.

Hess said that if the district opts to construct a new school, with voters’ support, the goal would be to do so without raising taxes for property owners.

Future problems?

While the focus now is on alleviating congestion in elementary schools, administrators acknowledged that those students eventually will age and move into other schools.

“You can see what’s coming,” Hess said. “We’ve got a wave of students that are heading toward the middle school and high school.”

Fortunately, the “new” Bemidji High School, which opened in 2000, was constructed with growth in mind and can hold up to 2,000 students.

The middle school, Hess said, will feel a bit of a pinch as classes begin to exceed 400.

“It’s wise to look at that,” Hess said. “But keeping things in perspective, we have a much more significant need at the elementary (level) right now.”

Currently, the middle-school grades are all somewhere at about 350 to 370 students, according to district figures. Grades five and three are just barely more than 400 now but first grade is sitting at 444 and kindergarten at 461.

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