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Pioneer Editorial: Kindergarten center best choice for school district

In the last decade, the Bemidji School District dealt with declining enrollments by closing Deer Lake Elementary School and the Paul Bunyan Kindergarten Center.

The opening of TrekNorth and Voyageurs charter high schools and open enrollment cut into the Bemidji High School population, and Schoolcraft Learning Community siphoned off some elementary- and middle-school-age students. But the main difference seemed to be just a lower number of young children entering school.

Now, with the Bemidji city's resident numbers topping 13,000 and the school district census reporting 36,502, an influx has caused a jump in student numbers as well as in the general population.

The Bemidji Board of Education has decided the long-term answer to the increased student numbers is to call for a referendum to put the building of a new elementary school to a vote of taxpayers. But something has to be done to accommodate the students for next fall.

Board members discussed a range of short-term possibilities including portable classrooms, reopening Deer Lake School, moving fifth grade to the Bemidji Middle School and eighth grade to Bemidji High School, transferring the Lumberjack High School to the Downtown Education Center in the former First National Bank site and building additions to Northern, Solway and Lincoln elementary schools. These responses all have major disadvantages and were rejected by the board members.

The choice board members approved 4-2 last week is to remodel the district administration office building at 3300 Gillett Drive N.W., which formerly housed the Paul Bunyan Kindergarten Center, into a Kindergarten Attendance Center and assign four sections of kindergartners from Northern Elementary School and two sections from Solway to the building.

To be sure, this plan also carries disadvantages. It will mean cancelling the lease with Head Start, which now uses classrooms in the building. It also will require busing students from Solway and from Northern School. Students would have to ride through two bus stops: to their neighborhood school and then to the Kindergarten Attendance Center. Breakfasts and lunches for the kindergarten students will also have to be transported from the high school or middle school kitchen. The cost of remodeling is estimated at $30,000.

However, as a short-term fix, assuming the voters approve building a new school in next winter's referendum, reopening the Gillett Drive location as a kindergarten center seems the least difficult option for the three to four years the district is expected to need for construction of a new elementary school.

It all depends on the will of the voters.