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Reshaping Grand Forks schools

The 400 or so parents who attended a Grand Forks School District public forum this past week listened intently to proposals that could change which school their children will attend, but they had plenty of ideas of their own.

The 400 or so parents who attended a Grand Forks School District public forum this past week listened intently to proposals that could change which school their children will attend, but they had plenty of ideas of their own.

Some disagreed with shifts to boundary lines meant to move students from more crowded schools to underutilized schools.

Some felt the proposal didn't address crowding at Century Elementary School soon enough.

The proposals are a product of about two months of work by the 30-member Demographic Task Force, convened by the district to address imbalances in the district's schools. Some schools in the city's core, including the north end, are less than 70 percent full. Others at the growing periphery, especially in the southwest, are nearing capacity.

Having ruled out school closures, to the relief of many parents, the task force now advocates building a new elementary school in the south end and shifting school boundaries.

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Many parents, though critical, said they recognized the magnitude of the task force's undertaking.

Jennifer Dame, a Century parent, had complained Monday of the district's slowness in responding to the crowding there. But she added, "I appreciate all the work they've done."

The task force will meet at 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Sanford Education Center. The School Board will see the final proposal Feb. 13.

Reliever school

Changes at the elementary school level were meant to address two big problems.

Century, in the city's southwest, is the second-most crowded school in the district at 91.5 percent of operational capacity. There's room for 56 students before reaching capacity of 660. Parents there have begun to complain.

Kelly, in the city's southeast, is the third-most crowded at 86.2 percent of capacity. There's room for 79 students before reaching capacity of 572. (Viking is the most overcrowded at 92.5 percent capacity, but there's been little discussion at task force meetings.)

The new $10 million south-end school, able to accommodate 300 students, would relieve the pressure by taking a good chunk of Century's and Kelly's territories. The design would allow another wing to be added raising capacity to 600.

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If the district started work this year, the new school could open by fall 2014. Assistant Superintendent Jody Thompson has said no new taxes would be needed because the district has paid off some old debts and is able to take on new debt. In addition, as the city grows south the district would collect more property taxes.

The district already owns land at two sites. One site is at Belmont Road and 55th Avenue South. The other is near South Middle School. District officials aren't completely happy with the sites because the former is too far to the east, and the latter is too close to South, which could lead to traffic jams.

Thompson said the district could work with developers to get a better site or swap land.

Safety first

The other problem is the so-called "Winship wedge" in the city's north-central area.

This is a piece of Winship's territory on the other side of North Washington Street, forcing students to cross the busy corridor to get to school.

Angie Lockwood, parent of a 5-year-old who would attend Winship, said she

wouldn't allow her child to walk to school and would have to drive instead. Other north-end parents said they feel the same.

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The task force suggests the wedge be incorporated into Wilder's territory.

Both Winship and Wilder are underutilized at 46.8 and 68.2 percent of capacity, respectively. Such a move would bolster Wilder attendance but further reduce Winship attendance. District officials say Wilder has two programs -- Head Start and special education -- that could move. Presumably, Winship could receive those programs.

Ready to grow

At the middle school level, the proposal would address two problems.

Valley, which serves the north end, is among the most underutilized schools in the district at 48.4 percent of capacity. By adding territory from Schroeder and South, both on the south end, Valley would get more students.

On the other hand, as the city grows south, the district expects south-end schools would come under pressure. Schroeder and South are now at 67.4 and 54 percent of capacity.

The proposal would transfer a chunk from South to Schroeder.

As an added benefit, the middle school boundaries would be better aligned with high school boundaries. And the proposal would also shift the two high school boundaries.

Red River is at 67.3 percent of capacity and Central is at 59.2 percent. The task force reasons transferring territory from Red River to Central, which some say is "land-locked," would bolster enrollment at the latter and leave room for south-end growth at the former.

A flaw

Some parents see a flaw in this plan because the district has a lenient transfer policy that allows students to attend any school they choose, as long as the school isn't at capacity.

On Monday, Bill Elmquist said his son graduated from Schroeder and is now at Red River. About half of his son's friends from Schroeder went to Red River with him and half went to Central, a decision often made for athletic reasons, Elmquist said. "The boundaries didn't seem to mean anything."

Wilder parents have complained for weeks that their school only appears underutilized because so many children who live nearby transferred. The school has 75 students, but it could have 54 more if not for transfers.

District-wide, 13.8 percent of students are attending schools outside of their area. That's a total of 972 students. Half of those numbers are at the elementary level and a third at the high school level.

District officials have said the main reasons for transfers at the elementary level were to be closer to child care or parents' work place.

Growing trend

The task force proposals come at a time when the Grand Forks School District is enjoying a bit of a revival as enrollment rose for the first time in 15 years.

In fall 2011, there were 55 more students than in fall 2010, a 0.8 percent increase.

More may be coming. In five years, the district is projecting 683 more students or a 10-percent increase over this past fall, most of it at the elementary level.

That's driven in part by births in the district, which has been on an upward trend. In the first half of the 2000s, births were consistently in the high 300s or low 400s. But in the second half, they've consistently been in the high 400s and low 500s.

Superintendent Larry Nybladh has speculated that Grand Forks had "bottomed out" and there's nowhere to go but up.

Without the changes the task force proposed, several schools would be over or close to capacity by fall 2016.

Century would be at 133.2 percent of operational capacity, Wilder at 110.9 percent -- Wilder parents used figures like these to argue their school be kept opened -- Viking at 99.7 percent and Kelly at 90 percent.

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