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Bemidji School Board seeks public input on need for more classroom space

The Bemidji School District's Board of Education is seeking input from the community on how to deal with more elementary students in the future and the schools and centers that will support them.

Superintendent James Hess presented to the school board a list of nine short-term and long-term classroom space options at a meeting Monday evening at the Bemidji High School Media Center.

The school district is anticipating an additional 300 additional kindergarteners in the next two years and 500 to 600 more in five to 10 years.

"We are proving to be a geographic center, a magnet of some sort," said Chris Leinen, the school district's business manager. "We have seen growth not just in the ripple effect of the baby boom generation, but we're also seeing growth in numbers."

Monday was the first time the school board discussed the nine options. The board will meet again at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 7, in a work session to continue discussing the options.

"We definitely want community involvement," said newly appointed board Chairman Bill Faver. "This is one of those crisis-opportunity situations. The crisis is space and financial, but it is also an opportunity for us to come together and try to get ahead of this. This is a great opportunity to look into the future."

Short-term options

The short-term options include purchasing or leasing modular buildings. The portable classrooms would be located at Northern and Solway elementary schools. This option is relatively inexpensive ($161,820 per classroom unit), according to Hess, but would require foundations, water and electricity hook-ups.

Another short-term option is building classroom additions onto Northern, Solway and Lincoln elementary schools. The school board would not need to pass a bond election, but elementary schools may get too large (around 600 students).

An additional short-term option would be to re-open Deer Lake Elementary, which has been closed for almost a decade. That option would use a building that was already voter-approved and would house an additional 170 students. This option would also raise transportation costs, and the school boundary lines between Northern and Solway elementary schools would have to be redrawn. The cost to remodel Deer Lake Elementary, Hess estimated, would be between $374,000 and $509,000.

Short and long term

One option that would be both short-term and long-term would be to reconfigure grade levels. District schools would be organized to serve grades K-4, 5-7 and 8-12. A designated eighth-grade area may have to be organized as a separate wing at BHS. This option would shift 350 elementary students to secondary schools and is also the least costly, but schools in Bemidji have never been organized this way before.

Another short-term and long-term option is to eliminate all-day, every-day kindergarten. Kindergarten would move to half-time kindergarten or an all-day, every-other-day kindergarten. This option would free up nine elementary rooms, but would potentially increase the achievement gap with student of poverty or at-risk students, according to Hess.

An additional option would be for the district to move to a four-day week. District classes would be offered Tuesday through Friday. This option would save the district transportation and food costs, but it serves no additional students. However, it would save the district between $700,000 and $1 million.

Long-term options

One long-term option would be to move to an extended school year. This would entail year-round schooling for students. Facilities would be available to all students, but only used by 75 percent of the students. However, Annual Yearly Progress testing would be difficult to schedule and transportation costs would increase.

Another option would be to construct a new three- or four-section elementary school. The district would need to request voter approval to bond and build a new elementary school to be located central to population growth. This option would provide new classrooms that would take the pressure off Northern and Solway elementary schools, but it comes during an economic recession. This would add a tax burden for property tax payers, Hess said. This option would also cost between $10 and 12 million.

The other long-term option is to develop two early learning centers. The Paul Bunyan Center would be converted to an early learning center and one new center would need to be constructed. This option would serve an additional 400 to 500 students and would free up classroom space at each elementary school, but it would divide early childhood personnel and resources between two centers. The Paul Bunyan Center would also need to be remodeled at an estimated cost of $200 per square foot.

Community input

The options presented by Hess stemmed from the district's long-range facilities planning committee, formed several years ago.

Faver said he would like to hear input from community members on the issue of classroom space.

"We are open to lots of ideas," Faver said. "We are going to make decisions based on research and data."

Hess said the decision on classroom space will be a public process.

"The board will start to look at this process and start narrowing down the choices in time," Hess said. "We will also be scheduling more public meetings to talk about these issues, gather input, hear the best thinking that everyone has on this, and then we'll start to take more of that data and narrow down the options."

School board member Gene Dillon said he felt it was important to note the decision will ultimately be made by the school board, but working with the public will help.

"(The final decision) may not satisfy everyone," Dillon said.

"The important thing is to have a transparent process," Hess added.

School board member Ann Long Voelkner said that as a board member, she was there to witness the closing of the Paul Bunyan Center and Deer Lake Elementary School.

"Moving children can be traumatic for people," she said. "We have to meet the needs of the district and the students. We have to be flexible. Thing change and we have to continuously work toward meeting the goals of the district."

Newly elected school board member Melissa Bahr said it is important that the school board keep students in mind first when making a decision.

"We're here for our children," she said.