EDUCATION: Decision on school site expected in next few months

BEMIDJI -- With minds torn about an elementary school that can't seem to find a home, the Bemidji School Board is hoping one will emerge -- and soon.

BEMIDJI -- With minds torn about an elementary school that can’t seem to find a home, the Bemidji School Board is hoping one will emerge -- and soon.

Speaking at a special School Board meeting Monday night, Superintendent Jim Hess of Bemidji Area Schools said the board is not on a deadline, but would likely decide -- among a site near Bemidji Middle School, a second near Bemidji High School and a third in Grant Valley Township -- in the next month or two. With one site or another, board member Ann Long Voelkner said, “a point of no return is going to happen.”

At Monday’s meeting, the site in Grant Valley stole much of the attention. The 160-acre tract on Division Street would have plenty of room for a playground and ball fields, Hess said, and would require $400,000 in street improvements compared to $1.6 million at the other sites.

Another advantage of building in Grant Valley: “The school would look more like the one we designed,” Hess said. Near the middle school and high school, street costs would probably force the district to drop classrooms and build one gymnasium instead of two -- cutbacks unlikely in Grant Valley.

There, the biggest concern is a series of power lines running across the property. The fourth- and fifth-grade school would need to sit a safe distance away from the poles, said Pat Weerts of Kraus-Anderson Construction Co., and students especially would need added protection.


The sites near the middle school and high school are attractive, the board said, because the new school could more easily share resources with the existing ones -- like ball fields.

The district had long planned to build Gene Dillon Elementary at the intersection of Middle School Road and 15th Street Northwest; street improvements made it too costly. Already, the district has invested about $200,000 in the site, but appears no closer to striking a deal with the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board, which has jurisdiction there.

“We don’t have any green lights at all as far as the JPB,” Hess said.

The other sites come with their own red tape -- just less, the board hopes.

For the district to build in Grant Valley on Division Street, Beltrami County would need to amend an ordinance that prevents the construction of schools near protected wetlands.

For the district to build behind the high school on the east side of Adams Avenue (land the district already owns), the Joint Planning Board would need to rezone the area for construction.

Hess and board members would like the school ready for fall 2017. With this building season lost, construction would need to begin as soon as spring allows.

Board member Jeff Haack said he would like to set a deadline for the decision, “to draw a line in the sand,” he said.


As of Tuesday, no lines had been drawn.

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