Last winter, New England Superintendent Kelly Koppinger read the news that the Dakota Women's Correctional and Rehabilitation Center — one of the town's largest employers — would be closing.
Fearing the prison closure would bring about a decline in families in town and thus a decline in student enrollment, the school board put plans for a school expansion project on hold. When the Legislature voted to move forward with a two-year study to determine the viability of the prison, it put the school in limbo.
"We were kind of hopeless and hanging," Koppinger said.
Having had reassurances that something would be in place to employ the town's families, the school construction project is projected to break ground in the spring of 2020.
"I think it’s needed. We were out of space two or three years ago," Koppinger said. "I think they’ve got things squared away at the county level and are working on things at the state level to make sure there’s going to be something in place down there, so we’ve decided to move ahead with it."
Hettinger County Commissioner John Plaggemeyer said he believes the decision to move forward with the school project was a good one.
"The next (subcommittee meeting) is supposed to be here in New England. After that one, we'll probably have more information about what they're thinking. I'm pretty confident that there's definitely going to be something here. Hopefully, the women's (prison) will stay here. To me, it's a no-brainer. There's nothing broke here, so why fix something? As far as the school moving forward, I believe that's a good decision. We are getting a lot of kids in this town," he said.
The school's enrollment has increased by 20 students this school year.
"We’re struggling to find room right now and we’re probably about a year and a half, two years out, from alleviating the pressure that’s put on the building, but that’s probably the best-case scenario … at this point and time without pulling in temporary units," Koppinger said.
In the meantime, the school is using every bit of space it can to fit its growing number of students.
"We’ve got spaces that weren’t intended to be classrooms being used as classrooms. We’ve got some library space that’s being utilized. We’ve got some cafeteria space being utilized, some rooms that are meant for basically large office spaces that are used for small-group settings. We’re using just about every inch of the building that we could possibly use," Koppinger said.
They have about 2-3 floating teachers who use classrooms made available during the teacher's prep period.
Though it's challenging, Koppinger said the increased enrollment is a good problem to have.
"It beats the alternative. You take a look at 20 years ago, they were talking about closing schools. That mentality has kind of changed direction," he said.
The school was already approved for a low-interest loan, and that combined with the money the school has in its building fund, should be enough to fund most if not all of the $9 million project.
"It’s nice to be able to … not tax your patrons to where they feel the burden of the project ... I think we can fund the project with what we currently have levied already. I don’t anticipate much of a raise at all," Koppinger said. "That’s my hope. We’ve got a plan to address that, and I’m hoping that — providing we don’t see a decrease in valuations — it should fund itself with the current rates that we’re levying right now."
The project would add about six classrooms to the building as well as an additional physical education facility, more space in the cafeteria, a music space and renovation of other spaces.
The district's bond referendum to add onto the school was approved by voters on November 6, 2018, with 224 "yes" votes and 128 "no" votes.