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DPS approves $65M bond referendum for middle school

Dickinson Public Schools approved a motion Monday to put forth a bond referendum in October that would finance the construction of a new middle school and an expansion on Prairie Hills Elementary School.

The referendum, if passed, would issue bonds of $65 million to cover a package consisting of a roughly $64 million middle school for grades 6-8 and about $2 million in renovations to the elementary school. Grant money would also be used to pay for the improvements.

The decision followed a recommendation by the construction consulting firm DLR Group at an April 14 meeting and almost a year of discussion over what to do about the district’s burgeoning student population.

“With the large classes that we have coming through, and the continued influx of K through 6 that keep coming into the school district, there will come a point in time, if we don’t do something with the middle school, where we won’t even have room for the kids,” Superintendent Doug Sullivan told the board.

By this fall, the school district is expected to have grown by 578 students since last May — 336 in elementary, 96 in middle and 146 in high school. The district enrolled 36 new students in March.

“We placed five children today, and it’s the end of April,” Assistant Superintendent Vince Reep said.

The new middle school would likely replace Hagen Junior High, which at more than 450 students is already strained.

“Hagen is, in all honesty, our most challenged facility,” Sullivan said. “And it’s challenged in terms of its age, in terms of making the age of the building work for a 21st-century middle school, and it’s also challenged in terms of its capacity.”

The board will review a more specific timeline on the bond election at the next meeting on May 12, but even if the $65 million referendum is approved by voters this fall, it would take another six to nine months to design plans, and even more time before the beginning of construction.

DLR Group estimated the school could open in fall 2017.

Sullivan said, in the meantime, the district needs to “figure out a way to get the expansion of Prairie Rose completed as soon as possible” to ease the stress on students and staff.

The debate over how to handle the influx of new students has been controversial in recent months, and even Monday’s decision came with much discussion. Still in question is when the district will build a new high school, which would cost about $100 million.

According to North Dakota law, the district can bond up to 5 percent of the district’s total assessed value. The $65 million package is “a number that works,” Reep said.

If the board had decided to move forward with plans to build a high school, it would have had to ask voters to approve doubling bond capacity.

“What is a willing participant willing to bear?” asked board member Leslie Ross. “My concern with that is if you go through the whole process of a bond referendum and it doesn’t pass, you don’t get to come back a week later and re-do it. You get to wait a whole ‘nother year before you can go back.”

And with land costs increasing just as rapidly as the student population, it’s a year the district might not be able to afford.

Board President Kris Fehr said $50 million to $70 million was the bond range most accepted when the issue was discussed in a series of community workshops.

Fehr said the board doesn’t know if voters will approve the referendum, but “patrons know that we have no more room for the kids.”