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Reopening Deer Lake Elementary School is one option the school board is considering to find more classroom space

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

In May 2001, Bemidji School Board member Gene Dillon cast the only vote against closing Deer Lake Elementary School, a rural school located about 30 miles north of Bemidji, stating he believed the district would possibly need the school again in the future.

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Dillon's prediction came true this year, as reopening the school is one of nine options the Bemidji School Board is considering to overcome classroom space shortages in the elementary schools.

But this time, ironically, Dillon does not like the idea of reopening the school.

"I knew this day would come when we would need it," Dillon said in a telephone interview. "But I think it's a bad idea. You take a kid who lives a mile away from Northern (Elementary) and put him in Deer Lake, it makes it tough for parents. I'm really not for reopening Deer Lake."

In what was described as a "tearful, agonizing decision," the school board voted 5-1 to close the school in May 2001. The school district faced a budget deficit of approximately $1.3 million and had seen a drop of roughly 450 students since 1995.

The school closure reportedly saved the district more than $400,000, which it needed in order to help balance the 2001-02 budget. The district also reduced Central Elementary School's class load to one class per grade. The Paul Bunyan Center, an early childhood learning center, eventually closed as well.

Today, the school district faces some of the same challenges it did 10 years ago, such as diminishing state funding, but is seeing a very different trend in the number of students.

More students are on the way, according to Chris Leinen, the district's director of business services. While this means more state funding, which is typically based on student enrollment, district officials are concerned there are not enough classrooms for the growing number of kindergarteners.

Student enrollment in the district has been steadily rising since 2006. In the past two years, the number of students in pre-kindergarten to 12th grade has grown from 4,643 to 4,945. The school district is looking at a projected increase in the next five years of at least 470 students.

The school board will hold public forums in late February and early March asking for community input on ways the district should deal with the surge in student enrollment.

One of the options, reopening Deer Lake Elementary, has been discussed at two meetings.

The school was built 30 years ago. It is an open-concept school and has a similar layout to Bemidji Middle School, meaning there are no interior doors. This type of layout, however, has caused some controversy in the middle school because of noise issues in classrooms.

Superintendent Hess has frequently stated at past meetings that Deer Lake Elementary resides in a "beautiful setting." The building offers the district 27,000 square feet of useable space, has nine classrooms and could serve up to 170 students. The school also has the potential to attract students who reside within the school district but have opted to attend other school districts. In addition, the building has already been approved by the voters.

But bringing in a school that has not been used in 10 years into operation would be costly, Hess said in a past school board work session. Remodeling Deer Lake would cost the district between $374,000 and $509,000. New curriculum would need to be purchased, and hiring personnel would cost the district approximately $250,000. There would be increased transportation costs with students needing to be bused 30 or more miles to and from school.

Hess has stated that reopening Deer Lake Elementary would take at least six months and is considered a short-term option, since it only serves 170 students. New school boundary lines would also have to be drawn.

According to Hess, the building is currently being considered as a possible site for an adult chemical treatment center and could be purchased by a separate agency.

Thinking back to the days when the school closed, Dillon recalled how difficult it was as a school board member to make such decisions.

"There were many Native American kids from Red Lake that attended the school," Dillon said. "One big reason I hated to see it close was because I thought it helped us with the Native American community. When we closed that, some of those kids went back to Red Lake, Clearbrook-Gonvick and Kelliher. We lost those kids."

Dillon said he does not see reopening the school a solution because he does not want to see the district redrawing bus routes and transferring students to other schools.

"I think it's a bad idea at this time," he said.

Ann Long Voelkner, who was appointed to the school board six months before Deer Lake Elementary closed, said she remembers the discussions that were held before the school closed.

"There was declining enrollment and the beginning of less budget allocation from the state," she said. "It was kind of the perfect storm. We needed to make significant cuts in millions of dollars in the district.

"As I look back, it was one of the top five hardest decisions I had to make as a board member," she added.

Although she did not say whether she would support the idea of reopening the school, Long Voelkner noted she understands the hardship that parents, teachers and students go through when a school is reopened or closed.

"I know that parents in the neighborhood communities invest in schools," she said. "Schools are community gathering places. When there is a change, children are faced with uncertainties, like what will happen to friends and teachers. Parents feel the same way."

Long Voelkner said she has learned as a school board member that circumstances change and school board members have an obligation to do what is best for students.

"We have to have the ability to remain flexible in our decisions based on the best information we can gather at time," she said. "Everyone understands and recognizes, given the circumstances, we do have the option to look more closely at Deer Lake, if in fact that comes to be based on the best information available to us, but I don't know."

At a work session in early February, the school board narrowed the list of nine options on classroom space ideas to four options to be further investigated. Reopening Deer Lake was not one of the four options to be looked into further, but it remains on the table for discussion.

It is not known at this point how much money the school district pays annually to keep Deer Lake Elementary operational as a storage facility. Hess and Leinen were contacted, but were unavailable for comment.

Public forums

E 7-8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 22, Bemidji Middle School cafeteria, 1910 Middle School Ave. N.W.

E 7-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 24, Northern Elementary School commons area, 8711 Irvine Ave. N.W.

E 7-8:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 1, Lincoln Elementary School cafeteria, 1617 Fifth St. N.E.

E 7-8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 3, Bemidji High School commons area, 2900 Division St. W.

In May 2001, Bemidji School Board member Gene Dillon cast the only vote against closing Deer Lake Elementary School, a rural school located about 30 miles north of Bemidji, stating he believed the district would possibly need the school again in the future.

Dillon's prediction came true this year, as reopening the school is one of nine options the Bemidji School Board is considering to overcome classroom space shortages in the elementary schools.

But this time, ironically, Dillon does not like the idea of reopening the school.

"I knew this day would come when we would need it," Dillon said in a telephone interview. "But I think it's a bad idea. You take a kid who lives a mile away from Northern (Elementary) and put him in Deer Lake, it makes it tough for parents. I'm really not for reopening Deer Lake."

In what was described as a "tearful, agonizing decision," the school board voted 5-1 to close the school in May 2001. The school district faced a budget deficit of approximately $1.3 million and had seen a drop of roughly 450 students since 1995.

The school closure reportedly saved the district more than $400,000, which it needed in order to help balance the 2001-02 budget. The district also reduced Central Elementary School's class load to one class per grade. The Paul Bunyan Center, an early childhood learning center, eventually closed as well.

Today, the school district faces some of the same challenges it did 10 years ago, such as diminishing state funding, but is seeing a very different trend in the number of students.

More students are on the way, according to Chris Leinen, the district's director of business services. While this means more state funding, which is typically based on student enrollment, district officials are concerned there are not enough classrooms for the growing number of kindergarteners.

Student enrollment in the district has been steadily rising since 2006. In the past two years, the number of students in pre-kindergarten to 12th grade has grown from 4,643 to 4,945. The school district is looking at a projected increase in the next five years of at least 470 students.

The school board will hold public forums in late February and early March asking for community input on ways the district should deal with the surge in student enrollment.

One of the options, reopening Deer Lake Elementary, has been discussed at two meetings.

The school was built 30 years ago. It is an open-concept school and has a similar layout to Bemidji Middle School, meaning there are no interior doors. This type of layout, however, has caused some controversy in the middle school because of noise issues in classrooms.

Superintendent Hess has frequently stated at past meetings that Deer Lake Elementary resides in a "beautiful setting." The building offers the district 27,000 square feet of useable space, has nine classrooms and could serve up to 170 students. The school also has the potential to attract students who reside within the school district but have opted to attend other school districts. In addition, the building has already been approved by the voters.

But bringing in a school that has not been used in 10 years into operation would be costly, Hess said in a past school board work session. Remodeling Deer Lake would cost the district between $374,000 and $509,000. New curriculum would need to be purchased, and hiring personnel would cost the district approximately $250,000. There would be increased transportation costs with students needing to be bused 30 or more miles to and from school.

Hess has stated that reopening Deer Lake Elementary would take at least six months and is considered a short-term option, since it only serves 170 students. New school boundary lines would also have to be drawn.

According to Hess, the building is currently being considered as a possible site for an adult chemical treatment center and could be purchased by a separate agency.

Thinking back to the days when the school closed, Dillon recalled how difficult it was as a school board member to make such decisions.

"There were many Native American kids from Red Lake that attended the school," Dillon said. "One big reason I hated to see it close was because I thought it helped us with the Native American community. When we closed that, some of those kids went back to Red Lake, Clearbrook-Gonvick and Kelliher. We lost those kids."

Dillon said he does not see reopening the school a solution because he does not want to see the district redrawing bus routes and transferring students to other schools.

"I think it's a bad idea at this time," he said.

Ann Long Voelkner, who was appointed to the school board six months before Deer Lake Elementary closed, said she remembers the discussions that were held before the school closed.

"There was declining enrollment and the beginning of less budget allocation from the state," she said. "It was kind of the perfect storm. We needed to make significant cuts in millions of dollars in the district.

"As I look back, it was one of the top five hardest decisions I had to make as a board member," she added.

Although she did not say whether she would support the idea of reopening the school, Long Voelkner noted she understands the hardship that parents, teachers and students go through when a school is reopened or closed.

"I know that parents in the neighborhood communities invest in schools," she said. "Schools are community gathering places. When there is a change, children are faced with uncertainties, like what will happen to friends and teachers. Parents feel the same way."

Long Voelkner said she has learned as a school board member that circumstances change and school board members have an obligation to do what is best for students.

"We have to have the ability to remain flexible in our decisions based on the best information we can gather at time," she said. "Everyone understands and recognizes, given the circumstances, we do have the option to look more closely at Deer Lake, if in fact that comes to be based on the best information available to us, but I don't know."

At a work session in early February, the school board narrowed the list of nine options on classroom space ideas to four options to be further investigated. Reopening Deer Lake was not one of the four options to be looked into further, but it remains on the table for discussion.

It is not known at this point how much money the school district pays annually to keep Deer Lake Elementary operational as a storage facility. Hess and Leinen were contacted, but were unavailable for comment.

Public forums

- 7-8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 22, Bemidji Middle School cafeteria, 1910 Middle School Ave. N.W.

- 7-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 24, Northern Elementary School commons area, 8711 Irvine Ave. N.W.

- 7-8:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 1, Lincoln Elementary School cafeteria, 1617 Fifth St. N.E.

- 7-8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 3, Bemidji High School commons area, 2900 Division St. W.

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