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Kindergarteners from Northern, Solway to move to former Paul Bunyan facility

Kindergarteners from Northern and Solway elementary schools will likely attend school in the same building as the Bemidji School District administration, at least for one year.

Once known as the Paul Bunyan Kindergarten Center, the building is located at 3300 Gillett Drive N.W. and houses administration offices, Community Education and the Head Start program.

The Bemidji School District's Board of Education voted 4-2 Monday to remodel and reopen the Paul Bunyan Center as a Kindergarten Attendance Center and assign kindergarten students from Northern (four sections) and Solway Elementary (two sections) to attend.

Also part of the vote was to have district administration provide written notice to end the lease with the Head Start program, which uses three classrooms.

The school board's decision to reopen the Paul Bunyan Center came one week after it voted to seek public approval for construction bonds to build a new four-section elementary school building to accommodate a growing number of elementary students. They expect the new school to be built in three to four years, although it depends on the public's vote.

School board members Gene Dillon and Melissa Bahr voted against relocating the kindergarten classes and canceling the lease with the Head Start program.

Relocating kindergarteners is a short-term option, according to school board Chairman Bill Faver. The board will likely need to revisit and possibly vote again on moving additional classes into the building at a later date. The Paul Bunyan Center has the capacity to house a total of 10 classrooms.

Superintendent James Hess has suggested remodeling costs for the Paul Bunyan Center could be about $20 per square foot, likely less than $30,000 total. The district would need to make adjustments to the kitchen. It would also have to relocate the break room in order to reclaim the cafeteria for lunches. Breakfasts and lunches would need to be transported daily from the high school or middle school.

The money to remodel the building will likely come from the district's capital projects fund, a reserve account that is funded on a per-pupil basis. The district uses this pot of money to maintain things like sidewalks, carpeting, roofs, boilers, textbooks and other major purchases.

One concern Hess had with the relocation was that students would likely have two bus stops, first at their neighborhood schools and second at the center.

"We could lose instructional time," Hess said. "The students here could have a shorter day than all of the other kids."

Bahr, who voted against the idea to reopen the center, said kindergarteners would be missing out on all-school activities that neighborhood schools provide. She added that she did not think it was a good idea to move out the Head Start program.

School board member Carol Johnson said she had a positive experience with the Paul Bunyan Kindergarten Center.

"None of the options go without financial concerns and disruption concerns, but I do like the idea because I do think it was such a wonderful facility when it was that," Johnson said. "To get back to the kindergarten center is going to be OK. We'll take it a year at a time and re-evaluate."

Dillon, who was on the school board when it closed the Paul Bunyan Center roughly 10 years ago, said moving the kindergarten students from Northern and Solway was not a good idea.

"I mean, it's a good idea when (the Paul Bunyan Center) was set up for it, but now we have to get rid of Head Start, and that's not good," he said. "We have people that think it won't hurt those kindergarten kids as much as it would fifth-graders or eighth-graders, but it would be worse."

Dillon added he did not want to close the Paul Bunyan Center, but now that it is closed, he does not want to reopen it.

Tami Wesely, principal at Solway Elementary, said she is excited about having some relief in her building.

"We were definitely at a max and this offers us some relief," Wesely said. "Whatever the decision is, we can always make it work."

Wesely added she was not in favor of adding prefabricated classrooms and views the move as a better option.