Students might not attend Saxvik Elementary School next year as the school district looks to use the building for another purpose.

Administrators of Bismarck Public Schools proposed that idea to the school board this week, citing low enrollment and concerns over providing an equitable education to students in the aging building.

Saxvik, built in 1952, needs a number of upgrades that come with a combined $2.5 million price tag, Superintendent Tamara Uselman said.

The building has accessibility problems for students with disabilities and a gym that doubles as a cafeteria, storing folded lunch tables against its walls, she said. The school has only six parking spaces and a tiny playground. Older students cross the street with staff to a nearby park for recess.

Bucking the trend elsewhere in the booming school district, enrollment is declining at Saxvik. The school is located in east Bismarck at 523 N. 21st St.

Saxvik has 221 students and is projected to drop to 206 in four years. The school’s capacity is 313 students.

“None of those things in and of themselves to me are a lone reason to repurpose a school,” Uselman said.

But taken together, they paint a different picture.

“At some point, does it pay to keep pouring money into a building?” Uselman asked.

By no longer operating Saxvik as a school, she said the district would save $1.5 million per year. A portion of the savings would come from staff salaries.

Six Saxvik teachers would go to Rita Murphy Elementary School, and the remaining six would replace retiring teachers at other buildings, she said. Other employees could fill job openings elsewhere in the district.

Saxvik’s students would attend Murphy, Jeannette Myhre, Pioneer or Will-Moore elementaries.

The proposal for Saxvik comes amid an effort over the past few months to study the school district’s buildings. A committee of 75 parents, school representatives and community members has been tasked with looking at the district’s facilities.

The school board is grappling with a decision on whether to expand Bismarck’s three public middle schools or build a new one as enrollment climbs — and how to fund such a project.

Enrollment increased in recent years at the elementary level as well, and it’s projected to grow in the future.

School Board President Lawrence King said he knows members of the public will be curious as to why Bismarck Public Schools is considering shutting down schools when more students are expected to enter the district and many facilities are crunched for space.

“The natural question is why would we repurpose this? We have to decide whether we can put millions of dollars into the building and whether we can get that return on investment,” said King, adding the board is receptive the administrators’ proposal.

“We’ve got to make a decision that’s in the best interest of these kids and to give them the best educational experience,” he said.

Parents react

The school district sent a message to Saxvik parents Wednesday evening informing them of the proposal to repurpose the school.

“It’s super sad,” Amy Gilman said. “I like how little this school is.”

Her first-grade daughter heard her talking about the plan Wednesday night and was upset. Gilman said her family recently considered moving elsewhere in Bismarck but decided against it in part so her child could stay at Saxvik.

Upon learning that Saxvik may close, her daughter asked a number of questions about what would happen to the school and her teachers. Gilman said she did not have answers.

Some parents waiting to pick up their kids Thursday afternoon had not yet read the message.

“It’s really sad,” said Cheyenne Hipsak when she heard the news. “I’ve gone here. Now my kids are going here.”

She said she would be OK with her three kids attending school elsewhere, but it would be tough separating them from friends. The same goes for parents.

“I know a lot of people here,” she said.

Julie Ellingson, president of Saxvik’s Parent Teacher Organization, said she wanted to hold off commenting until she has more information on the proposal.

Transitions at the school

District administrators are determining how to repurpose Saxvik and will discuss the issue at the next school board meeting, Uselman said. The meeting is scheduled for 5:15 p.m. April 18 at the Hughes Educational Center, 806 N. Washington St.

A final decision on whether to close Saxvik is not expected until the April 25 board meeting.

It’s unlikely students and teachers would transfer to the building from other locations, Uselman said. The school district could move some of its offices there or search for a community partner, such as a business, to operate out of the building.

Saxvik would not be the first of Bismarck’s public schools to be repurposed. The former Riverside Elementary School now houses the alternative South Central High School, and Richholt Elementary School is now home to the Bismarck Early Childhood Education Program. Hughes, where school district offices are located, used to be a junior high.

School district leaders said it’s important families experience a smooth transition should their kids move to different schools.

The district plans to let Saxvik students scope out their new schools during visits this spring should the board approves the proposal. Busing would be provided to those buildings next year, and the district would try to make accommodations for families who want their kids to attend a particular school.

Uselman said Saxvik has served kids well.

“I think people have an emotional attachment to their school building,” said Uselman, adding the school district has to consider its desire to provide equity throughout its schools. She said keeping Saxvik open poses a tough question, “Is this fair?”

(Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8267 or amy.sisk@bismarcktribune.com.)

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