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Bemidji School District eyes more classroom space

BEMIDJI – Four additional kindergarten classrooms may be moved into the Paul Bunyan Center in an effort to increase classroom space throughout the Bemidji School District.

“All of our elementary schools are crowded,” said Jim Hess, district superintendent, in a Monday evening school board meeting. “This will give temporary relief to some of the building situations.”

The school board voted unanimously to ask the Minnesota Department of Education for approval to lease space for administrative purposes.

If approved, the district would move administration out of the Paul Bunyan Center into the Downtown Education Center, freeing up enough space at the Paul Bunyan Center to add another four kindergarten classrooms, or about 100 additional students, according to Chris Leinen, the district’s director of business services.

Additionally, in a second phase, the district would lease 22,000 square feet of instructional space in another location, perhaps the Simonson Center, and relocate the district’s early childhood programs from the DEC and Beltrami County Community Services Center into one central location, allowing the district’s lease with the county to expire, according to a letter in the school board packet.

Enrollment has been growing in the school district, especially in early years. In a draft letter prepared for the Department of Education, the district states that elementary enrollment has grown by 300 students in the last five years and is predicted to continue along similar growth patterns.

Kindergarten enrollment is projected to grow by nearly 500 more students by 2018-19, according to district figures.

“Long-term, we’re going to need to build an elementary school,” Hess said. “These are short-term measures to take care of very congested elementary schools.”

District voters in 2011 voted 2-to-1 to reject a $13 million bond question that would have authorized the construction of a new elementary school near Bemidji High School.

“That tool is not in our tool chest at this time,” Hess said of the potential for a new school. “This, I think, is one of the best available options for us.”

Leinen predicted that the district would receive a response from the Department of Education within about 60 days.

“This clearly shows where our priorities are,” Hess said. “Our priorities are our classrooms, for our kids to learn in. This is a move to take pressure off of the elementaries.”