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A ‘tipping point’: School board considers new building options

BEMIDJI -- Having exhausted its options for adding classroom space by relocating programs and reopening the kindergarten center, Bemidji Area Schools is beginning to confront its long-term facilities challenges.

“We have reached a tipping point regarding elementary enrollment and we’ve exhausted virtually all viable options by reclaiming classroom space through moving student support programs such as Community Education, Head Start, student registration, food service, technology, district office and reopening the Paul Bunyan Center,” said Jim Hess, superintendent of Bemidji Area Schools, during a Monday evening work session of the School Board.

Opening a potentially months-long discussion, the board reviewed “skyrocketing” enrollment numbers and outlined several possibilities for addressing the situation.

One of those options would be to seek voter approval for a new K-5 elementary school.

The voters in 2011 handily voted this down, rejecting a plan at that time to construct a new school modeled after Lincoln Elementary School that would have been located near Bemidji High School.

Hess said there were three main objections voiced against the referendum at that time: that the economy was poor, the location was not ideal and some voters felt that the district should first reopen Deer Lake Elementary before any new construction.

In response, Hess suggested four potential solutions:

  • Construct a new K-5 school to replace Central Elementary, built in 1959. That school now has 219 students but a new school could be built for 500 to 600 students, and reduce crowding at J.W. Smith and Lincoln elementaries. The existing Central could then be repurposed.

  • Add four to eight new classrooms each to Lincoln and J.W. elementaries, perhaps even Northern. Then, the district would lease more space for early childhood classrooms.

  • Construct an intermediate school for fourth- and fifth-graders, centrally located to relieve enrollment pressures at multiple schools. It could be built for up to 900 students and would be for all schools that now have those grades. The school itself could be built to focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects or other specialty emphasis. Current elementaries would then become K-3 primary schools. Paul Bunyan could become a preschool for at-risk students.

  • Construct a 12- to 16-classroom school for kindergartners from Central, J.W. Smith and Lincoln elementaries. It would resemble Paul Bunyan Elementary in operation.

Ideally, any new construction would be done without increasing taxes, Hess said.

“Anything that we do has got to be based on that premise,” he said.