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Steady growth in the K-5 grades driving many of the future decisions for School Board, administrators

School space

About 700 students.

That's the target for Bemidji Area Schools as it ponders options for serving additional students.

The need for more space has been discussed for several years, prompting a 2011 voter referendum that, had it passed, would have funded the construction of a new elementary school.

The School Board is now mulling similar options, most recently weighing whether it should craft a multi-tiered question to address three ongoing issues: a new school building to alleviate the elementary overcrowding; funds to replace the aging heating, ventilation and air-conditioning unit at Bemidji Middle School; and perhaps even a new fieldhouse or amenities for added recreational space.

That conversation will continue Monday as the Bemidji School Board convenes in a 7 p.m. special session at district headquarters, 502 Minnesota Ave. NW.

Since 2007, the district's K-5 enrollment has grown by 358 students. An increase of another 326 K-5 students is predicted over the next five years. Add those together and the district anticipates a growth of 684 K-5 students over an 11-year time frame, from 2007 to 2018.

"It's not just a static need; it's a growing need," said John Pugleasa, a Bemidji School Board member, at this past Monday's meeting.

Indeed, enrollment is projected to continue increasing beyond 2018. District-wide, K-12 enrollment is projected to grow from 5,001 in 2013-14 to 5,550 by 2024-25, an average of more than 50 students a year.

Those figures are obtained from a variety of sources, including birth rates and population trends.

"The projection model uses any number of variables but the most significant is birth rates," said Chris Leinen, director of business services, in an interview with the Pioneer.

Those rates, from the two applicable zip codes, are combined with the historic percentage of the live births that translate into kindergartners in the Bemidji district to predict enrollment for the next five years.

"That gives us a real solid projection for the next five years," Leinen said.

Beyond that time, the projections are based on historic and recent trends. For example, the district knows that the growth trends dictate that enrollments will continue to increase in the attendance areas for Northern, Lincoln and Horace May elementary schools.

"The model looks at history, rolls it further, and it's pretty accurate," Leinen said. "When you're looking at 5,000 kids and at what's your margin for error, well if you're off by 10 percent that's Lincoln Elementary School so you can't be off by 10 percent. If you're off by 2 or 3 percent, well still that's 100 or 150 kids and that's Solway (Elementary School).... So you want to be as accurate as you can."

There are several checks in place that aid the district in predicting and managing its enrollment projections, such as the fall seat counts that occur on Oct. 1 each year. Then, each student physically attending class in the district is counted. In a district like Bemidji, which has higher-than-average mobility in its student population, it knows those figures will change repeatedly throughout the year, but those counts can still be used to compare those figures from year to year.

So just how much room does the district need? Leinen said the district knows right now that 326 more K-5 students are coming in the next five years. It also knows that its elementaries are already overcrowded, perhaps with as many as 150 or 200 more students spread out over those schools than they were designed to handle. Add in the 250-plus students served at Paul Bunyan Elementary and the district is looking at needing room for at least 780 students.

"The struggle is, do we build a K-5 center which may not be enough, or do we build a 4-5 center for say 900 (students) which gets us that 780 and maybe the additional room for growth of 100 more students," he said.

Intermediate school

An intermediate school -- or what Leinen referred to as the 4-5 center -- would be dedicated to serving all of the district's fourth- and fifth-graders, bringing all of those students, and their staffs, into the same building.

"That would create classroom space at every elementary school because the fourth- and fifth-graders would be gone from there," said Jim Hess, superintendent of schools, at Monday's meeting.

Existing schools would then have space to take in additional students and would also welcome back the kindergarten classes currently at Paul Bunyan Elementary. There were more than 220 students at Paul Bunyan in the last school year.

The district could then relocate its early childhood programs to Paul Bunyan, where, Hess said, the district could expand its preschool programming to accommodate more students.

Meanwhile, at the intermediate school, depending on the School Board's preference, the school could be built to have separate wings for grades four and five, or perhaps it could be built to emphasize the development of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math), cultural studies, or the arts.

"The sky's the limit," Hess said.

As to how large such a school might be, Hess has suggested a capacity of about 900 and also floated the possibility of two smaller intermediate schools.

"If we do a solution that is (only) for 300 or 400 students, I don't think we're addressing it. I don't think we've gone far enough into the future," Hess said. "I think we've put a Band-Aid on it, but I don't think we've fixed (the problem)."

K-5 school

A new elementary would be a traditional four-section elementary school built to accommodate students in a yet-to-be-specified enrollment area.

While such a school is a key option, Hess said it would have a few drawbacks, such as not bringing all of the Paul Bunyan kindergartens back into their neighborhood schools. Since that would not occur, it is unclear then just how much space could be alleviated in the elementaries that are already cramped.

Also, enrollment boundaries would be shifted, affecting those families that deeply connect with existing neighborhood schools.


Another option would involve adding on to existing buildings, but that may be complicated.

Central Elementary does not have available space for such an addition and Northern Elementary has been added onto four times already.

"Frankly, (Northern's) infrastructure is to the point where it's pretty close to its capacity," Hess said.

The easiest school to add on to would be Lincoln Elementary, which was designed for additions.

With enrollments increasing at in four enrollment areas -- those for Northern, Lincoln, Horace May and J.W. Smith -- Hess questioned how many additions would be needed and whether additions would be able to provide the needed space for as much growth as the district will experience.

Deer Lake

In May 2001, the School Board voted 5-1 to close Deer Lake Elementary, a single-section school located north of Bemidji in Liberty Township.

The School Board this year has acknowledged that if a referendum is sought for a new school, the district would have to clearly explain to voters the reasons it needs a new school while it currently has one sitting vacant.

A few years ago, after the 2011 referendum, the district looked at reopening at Deer Lake. The preliminary cost estimates to get the building operable were around $400,000 at that time and Hess said he'd imagine those would be higher today.

Beyond that, he said the school could only serve about 170 students and enrollments are increasing well beyond that figure.

"That wouldn't make much of a dent," Hess said.

The School Board pointed out, too, that the district is not experiencing enrollment growth in the Deer Lake area so the cost of busing students to and from that school would be higher.