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Public meets with school leaders on need for more classrooms

Elementary schools in the Bemidji School District are full and, in some cases, have already exceeded capacity. District officials are now asking for public input on ways to deal with a school space dilemma.

More than 30 community members met with the Bemidji School District's Board of Education and administrators Tuesday evening at the Bemidji Middle School. The forum was the first of four forums scheduled in February and March.

The next public forum will be held from 7-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 24, at Northern Elementary School, 8711 Irvine Ave. N.W.

Chris Leinen, the district's director of business services, said the district will likely see about 66 more students per year for each of the next five years than it did for each of the last five years. These numbers, he said, come from the number of births reported at the local hospital from the last five years.

"That's between 350 kids over the next five years," he said at the public forum. "The (school district's) growth model indicates we will be seeing approximately a 612-student growth over a six-year period of time. The bottom line is we're seeing those kids come in at the elementary schools."

Kathy Palm, the district's director of curriculum, said she asked all the elementary school principals to report on their schools' classroom space issues, which she shared with those who attended the public forum.

"Right now there is no classroom space available," Palm said. "Every single classroom space is being used in every single building. Our cafeterias, gymnasiums and media centers are all basically at capacity and in some cases are above capacity."

Central Elementary has 196 students and houses two district special education programs, a Title 1 classroom and a preschool program for 4-year-olds.

"Next year we will have to add another classroom because we will have a second grade that needs two of them, but right now we don't have a spare room," Palm said.

Horace May Elementary has 432 students and hosts two district special education programs. Palm said the school is near capacity.

Both Central and J.W. Smith elementary schools are not handicapped accessible, which means student with special needs are not able to attend these schools.

Lincoln Elementary has 544 students. Every room is occupied, Palm said.

Northern Elementary has 616 students. The school is utilizing all rooms for classrooms, with the exception of the media center and the computer lab. The school's lunch schedule starts at 10:30 a.m. and lunch is served until 1 p.m. Northern also offers music and art on a cart.

"The biggest problem is the student transition times in hallways," Palm said. "The building is not designed for the number of students in the common area, such as the lunch room, hallways and rest rooms."

Solway Elementary has 197 students. The school uses its computer lab as a classroom and has two multi-age classrooms because of the excess number of students.

The school board has come up with nine ideas on how to add more classroom space in the district. The options are to purchase or lease modular classrooms for use at Northern and Solway Elementary Schools; build permanent classroom additions onto Northern, Solway or Lincoln elementary schools; reopen Deer Lake Elementary School; reconfigure grade levels; eliminate all-day, every-day kindergarten; transition to a four-day school week; move to an extended school year; build another elementary school (which would require voter approval); or repurpose the Paul Bunyan Center and build a new early learning center.

Small group discussions were held at round tables at the public forum, with one or more district officials at each table. Many of the comments heard from the tables centered on the costs associated with building a new school, where it would be built and how big it would be.

The school district's current debt is at approximately $28 million. The district's current debt limit is $388 million. Superintendent James Hess estimated if the school district were to build a new elementary school, which would cost roughly $10-12 million, it would likely result in a $59 increase in property taxes on a house valued at $175,000.

One person brought up the idea to move district administration out of the Paul Bunyan Center and move it to the high school. The Paul Bunyan Center would be reopened to accommodate half of the kindergarteners. An elementary school would then be built on the high school property, with an administrative wing added onto the school.

Some forum attendees thought it would be best to build a new elementary school. Others wanted to reopen Deer Lake Elementary while some thought it would be best to sell. Almost everyone who attended agreed that eliminating all-day, every-day kindergarten was not a good idea.

Reconfiguring grade levels was another hot topic at the public forum. The district has proposed moving the fifth-graders into the Bemidji Middle School and moving the eighth-graders into Bemidji High School, which is the school with the most classroom spaces available.

School board member Melissa Bahr said she was impressed with the wide variety of people who attended the forum.

"It was a good turnout and it wasn't just teachers who came," Bahr said. "There were all age groups here."

According to Hess, the school board will collect all of the public comment forms from each of the public forums and will discuss the comments at an upcoming work session.

"This is a great opportunity," Palm said. "Isn't it great that we're talking about growing instead of cutting? It's great."