December 19, 2012

Already too small?

By Kate Ruggles
Farmer Staff Writer

A new addition to the current Watford City Elementary School will bring the building’s current capacity to 600, and is on pace to be used in the fall of 2013 in Watford City, for the 2013-2014 school year. However, some are wondering how long the addition will be able to meet the needs of the McKenzie County Public School District No. 1, especially since the current elementary building houses roughly 440 students.
“When we made the plans for the addition, we purposely scaled them back because we did not want a building for elementary-age children with a capacity larger than 600,” states Superintendent Steve Holen.  “It is typically not beneficial to the education process for an elementary student to be part of a larger campus setting that is found with larger middle and high school buildings. Generally, an elementary school is kept at a lower capacity level to ensure a level of comfort and familiarity for the younger students and their parents.”
But according to Holen, with enrollment numbers continuing to increase at the elementary school, there is a very realistic possibility the newly renovated elementary building could open and already need more classroom space. Ultimately, however, it depends on the number of enrollments, a number which will remain unknown to the school district until the start of the next school year.
“This year, the district’s total enrollments have stayed steady at 880. If we start approaching 1,000 students, with 500 in both the elementary and high schools, we can support that enrollment to a certain level,” states Holen. “But if we start moving toward an enrollment of 1,200, we will have to start looking at alternate solutions.”
While Holen acknowledges that if more room is needed at the elementary school, one option is to bring in portables. But that is still a temporary solution. A better solution, according to Holen, is to build a high school for grades 9-12 and then moving grades 5-8 into the current high school building and keeping grades K-4 in the new elementary building.
“It is evident that the current location of the high school provides little to no opportunities for growth due to its landlocked nature within the city. If the district were to explore the need for additional extracurricular space for any reason, it begins to lead to the idea of building a high school building where land would no longer be such a constricting factor,” states Holen. “Should the district need to build a new building, the current high school building is better suited to transition into another configuration of grades, such as a middle school for grades 5-8, if that becomes necessary.”
Holen is thinking in these directions because, in his words, “The planning process starts now.”
“There would be a two-year building time line, and with the way enrollments seem to be going, we may have to start the process of building a new high school in early 2014,” states Holen. “That is why it is important to start looking for land now, so we can be ready for whatever may play out.”
Holen states that renovating the elementary building has bought them time so they are in really good shape going into the 2013-2014 school year. It is the 2014-2015 school year that Holen is uncertain about.
“We are a school district that will need another building if enrollments keep rising. And if this becomes the case, we need the help of the community,” Holen states. “We are trying to be conservative and responsible, but we can’t go any further without help from the community.”
Holen states that he and the school board knew adding on to the elementary building was never the answer that would solve all their problems. But that was always a smaller step in a bigger plan.
“We are having to continue on with the next step in our plan sooner than we imagined,” states Holen. “But the new addition bought us some time so we could be sure where the boom was going and be sure of where we wanted to go.”