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Getting down to the wire: Bemidji School Board has tough decision to make regarding classroom space

Time is of the essence as members of the Bemidji School District's Board of Education have three days to decide on how they will gain more classroom space for the future.

The school board will vote on one or more classroom space options at its regular meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday in the Bemidji High School Media Center.

School board members Gene Dillon and Melissa Bahr will be available at 6 p.m. for a listening session, during which time the public can meet with them in an informal setting.

After a series of public forums, meetings and work sessions, the school board and administrative staff came up with a list of seven potential short-term and long-term options to overcome classroom space shortages occurring at the elementary schools.

All of the school board members were contacted, but only Carol Johnson, Dillon and Bahr were available for comment.

Dillon said the decision-making process has gone "really well."

"My feeling is, (in) the long run, it would be best to build a new elementary school somewhere in the district," Dillon said.

Dillon is confident on how he will vote Monday, but admitted he was not sure how the rest of the school board felt yet.

His reasoning comes from two factors. First, he said, moving fifth-graders into the middle school and eighth-graders into the high school will not solve the problem long term because eventually there may be too many kids in the high school.

Secondly, he said, several of elementary schools are aging and adding onto them will only encase the old facilities, potentially causing problems in the future.

Dillon said he talked to several people at the public forums who were supportive of building a new school.

"A lot of people were for that option," Dillon said. "But then you have to vote for bond issue. I don't know whether they would be for it or not. But that is the chance you have to take. Where would we be if we did not take any chances?"

Dillon said he knows times are hard, but Bemidji is a growing area.

Having been a school board member for 22 years, Dillon said he is used to making high-pressure decisions, but said he is very much concerned about students.

Johnson said the work sessions and school board meeting she attended were helpful, but still needs to spend more time thinking about the decision she will make.

For Bahr, who is the newest member of the board, this will be one of her first major decisions she makes as a school board member. So far, she said, she feels comfortable with any of the seven options presented at the last work session.

"What I look for is how it will affect our kids," Bahr said. "How will kids be affected in the long term? Will they be devastated?"

Bahr said she was particularly pleased the board held public forums so the community could weigh in on the decision-making process.

"This decision is always on my mind," she said. "But it's not just my opinion - it's the community's opinion and the kids' opinion."

From now until Monday, Bahr said, she will be spending time reading notes from public forums.

"No matter what happens, the school district will succeed," she said. "I do not think there are any options that I think are really bad."

The Bemidji School District, at its highest enrollment in 1996, had 5,600 students.

During the next 10 years, however, the district lost roughly 1,000 students. According to Chris Leinen, the district's director of business services, three factors caused this decline - open enrollment, the opening of three charter schools and a natural curve in birth rates that stemmed from the baby boom generation. Over the next five years the district's enrollment stayed flat.

In the last two years the district has seen growth of about 300 students in excess of what would normally occur due to a larger kindergarten class moving in, Leinen said.

Economic factors are at play and are causing more students to enter into the district, he said. According to recent census information, in the last 10 years Bemidji has grown by about 12 percent.

"We know birth rates are going to drive an increase at the kindergarten level by about 66 students per year," Leinen said. "If there are other economic factors that continue, that number could grow further."

Leinen predicts a range of 300 to 700 more students will be entering the district in the near future.

One question that was raised during a public forum was why the school district did not have a space issue in 1996, when enrollment was at its peak.

Leinen said the district used portable classrooms at the time and had half-day kindergarten, instead of all-day, every-day kindergarten. Also, he said, there were not as many computer labs in schools as there are today.

Ten years ago, the district closed Deer Lake Elementary School and the school district offices were moved out of the high school and into the facility it closed when it moved the kindergarteners into the elementary schools.

Questions were also asked about why the district chose to build a new elementary school, Lincoln, and high school.

"We got a new Lincoln because we had a really old Lincoln. We got a new high school because we had a really old high school," Leinen said. "Two of our existing schools right now are over 50 years old. They are serving us, but how long will they continue to do so?"