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School facilities crunch: Bemidji School Board examines options to deal with more students

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

The Bemidji School District's Board of Education met Monday evening to discuss ways to deal with an additional 500 to 700 students expected to enter the district in the next five years.

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No action was taken by the board at the work session, but a two-hour discussion among board members took place in front of a large audience of concerned teachers, administrators and parents.

School District Superintendent James Hess presented the board with findings from the district long-range facilities committee and gave a short presentation on enrollment trends and projections.

The facilities committee, made up of teachers, administrators and school board members, met over a series of months in 2009 in researching ways the district could effectively handle increased student enrollment.

As short-term options, the committee recommended schools could take in students based on attendance areas (location of residence in relation to a school's location); combining Central and J.W. Smith elementary schools into one attendance area; using federal stimulus dollars to add onto existing elementary schools; moving the district offices to the high school; reopening Deer Lake Elementary School (currently being used for storage) and/or possibly using the Bemidji Community Arena for additional space.

As long-term options, the committee suggested the possible relocation of Early Childhood Family Education/Early Childhood Special Education (currently housed in a county building) to the Paul Bunyan Center (currently home to the district offices); building small neighborhood schools, such as a new three-section school; and/or splitting the Bemidji Middle School into two 600-student schools.

Current enrollment trends at the district have been startling for some district officials. The smallest grade level, the 11th grade, is at 320 students. In comparison, the number of kindergarteners this year has reached 400 students.

"In some schools there are a larger number of students than what the building was built to accommodate," Hess said. "In some cases, educational programs suffered, and we've cut back on services we would have ordinarily afforded students."

As examples, the computer lab in Solway Elementary is now used for classroom space, and at Northern Elementary, the music program is provided to students on a cart and the art teacher moves around from classroom to classroom.

District Business Manager Chris Leinen said in the last two years, the number of students entering the district has exceeded the birth rate.

He attributes this to a lower student drop-out rate, more students staying in the district longer and more students coming into the district from other areas. These factors have caused an increase of about 150 additional students each year, he said.

Add 70 to 80 new kindergarteners a year, Leinen said, and the district should expect a minimum of 500 more students in five years.

Hess said the district did not receive the federal stimulus dollars the facility committee expected, which could prevent the district from adding onto existing elementary schools.

Adding portable classrooms, Hess added, would also not be an option because of increased Minnesota Department of Education construction requirements, such as foundation, bathroom, accessibility and alarm requirements.

In regard to turning the district offices into an early childhood center, Hess said the Paul Bunyan Center could only accommodate half of all the kindergarteners, since kindergarten is now offered all day, instead of half a day, as it used to be.

Deer Lake Elementary School, which was built to accommodate 170 students, is available, but would cost the district between $200,000 and $400,000 to update. Storage space would also have to be found elsewhere.

Lincoln Elementary School, which currently houses 539 students, is a viable option for the district, as it was built for the potential to add four classrooms, or about 120 students.

Bemidji High School, which was originally built for 2,200 students, currently has fewer than 1,500 students. The option to relocate the district offices into the high school, or even add the eighth grade, was discussed.

Hess said the downside of adding more students at the high school would be that teachers would not have assigned classrooms. Instead, they would have a cart, or a teacher planning center, that they would move from classroom to classroom.

The cafeteria would have to serve an additional 400 students, which could mean lunches would be served as early as 10:30 a.m. and as late as 2 p.m.

While the district currently does not limit students to attendance areas, Hess said principals can limit the number of non-attendance students on a case-by-case basis.

According to Hess, the district currently has a procedure where parents can petition the principal of a school to attend a non-attendance school. However, principals are given the authority to withdraw that special permission and send a student back to a school in the student's attendance area if the student does not respond favorably to that school.

"I'd be interested in seeing how many students are attending schools not in their current attendance area," said school board member John Pugleasa. "It's going to be costly if we move attendance lines. It's troublesome and hard on families."

The current district operating referendum of $501 per pupil will expire in the fiscal year 2013-14 unless renewed in or before November 2113. The current debt load of the district is $33,000,000, with final payoff in April 2019.

"The economy is not strong anywhere, especially not in our county," Hess said. "Would this be the time to ask voters to approve a bond issue for new construction? Do we want to ask too much at one time?" Whatever we do, it has to make sense to the voters, parents and kids."

School board member Bill Faver said he hoped the district will be able to resolve the space issue for next year.

"I would like to see us, by this spring, have some places for the next two to three years," he said.

"The bottom line is we have a good problem, having additional students," Pugleasa said. "We need to have plans in place that we have thought and wrestled with in a timeline that we can communicate back to Bemidji."

Hess said the school board will meet again in a work session to continue discussing district facilities.

"We want community input and advice before moving this any farther down the road," Hess said. "We want to make sure whatever we do it is done thoughtfully and deliberately."

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