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Neighborhood school campaign

Blue and green yarn signs have popped up in Bismarck this year. Members of the Roosevelt Alliance for Neighborhood schools said about 400 signs were sold and placed on the front lawns of yards across town. Jen Nairn, left, and her daughter, Nora Nairn, stand outside their Bismarck house with their friend Ann Richardson, center. Nora is in the second grade at Roosevelt Elementary School.

You may have noticed the hundreds of yard signs that began popping up around Bismarck this year.

The signs, reading, "Neighborhood schools=healthy communities" quickly went up on the front lawns of homes of all sizes across Bismarck, including across the street from Bismarck Public Schools administration building.

The neighborhood schools movement began after June, when an elementary facilities planning committee recommended that the Bismarck School Board close and repurpose Highland Acres and Roosevelt elementary schools, as well as to make boundary changes to alleviate growth in some parts of town.

The recommendations prompted immediate backlash from some community members, who, in response, formed an alliance and began attending school board meetings to voice their concerns.

The school board reacted to the blowback by shelving the proposals and deciding to hold off on moving forward with any changes to elementary schools after this fall's enrollment numbers came in lower than expected.

The school board ended this year by sending a request for qualifications from architectural firms to see how much it would cost to add onto Grimsrud and Centennial elementary schools to help accommodate student growth.

An unresolved future

This coming year the conversations will continue, but at a slower pace, and leaving some community members and parents concerned and feeling unresolved about the direction of the board.

Ann Richardson, a member of the Roosevelt Alliance for Neighborhood Schools, who has two children attending Roosevelt, said she thinks the school board may have misunderstood the goal of the community alliances, which aims to raise awareness about the value of neighborhood schools.

"I think it seemed like we were parents who wanted to keep our schools open, and (the board) responded just to that," Richardson said. "If we were just concerned about saving Highland Acres and Roosevelt, our signs would have said, 'Save Highland Acres and Roosevelt,' or 'Protect small schools.' That's not what we said; we said we want neighborhood schools because it creates a healthy community."

Richardson said she thinks the board is focusing too much on money and not on the value of having smaller, neighborhood schools. Next month, alliance members plan to meet with board members to discuss their qualms.

"I know three board members are up for re-election (next) year, and I'm hoping we'll be able to see how responsive they are to the community's concerns before the election," Richardson said.

Richardson also said she's worried about the board's proposed timing to wait to hold public forums until after next fall enrollment numbers are finalized.

"(But what if) what they've got on the back burner is not well-received?" Richardson said. "I think that if they were going to have community meetings today about busing far north kids into Centennial and Grimsrud, I don't think it would be well received."

Torie Reinhart has a 3-year-old boy and a daughter who is in first grade at Centennial. She said she opposes an addition at Centennial and has concerns about making the school bigger.

Reinhart and her husband previously lived in the Twin Cities, but they moved to Bismarck in 2008, partly because they have family here but also because of the appeal of having their children attend a smaller school. There are benefits to small schools, such as more one-on-one time with students and less distractions, she said.

Reinhart said she's apprehensive about what changes could be forthcoming.

"For my husband and I, we just want to know what the future will look like," she said.

Reinhart recognizes the growth north of Bismarck and thinks there should be another school built there, an option she hopes the board will take time to consider, rather than just adding onto schools.

"I feel like they're trying to slap a Band-Aid on a problem that's been brewing for a couple years now," she said.

Weighing the options

Bismarck School Board President Karl Lembke said the board will continue to carefully weigh all of its options. Initially, when the board received the elementary facilities committee's recommendations, Lembke said he was unsure about repurposing schools, but open to the ideas that came from the committee.

When enrollment numbers came back with fewer students than anticipated, the conversation changed and "the urgency was lowered a little bit," Lembke said.

BPS superintendent Tamara Uselman said that the demographer's projections were not off by much — only by about 140 students.

"Being off like it was this year, to me, isn't a major concern. I do think it's a sign of a trend that we're going to grow more slowly and have more time to respond, but trends need some time to play out," Uselman said.

Because the perceived urgency to find a solution to what was once rapid growth in BPS has lessened, Lembke said the school board is taking its time to explore different ideas. 

"Anxiety is natural and it's something the board does not take lightly," he said of parents who unsure of what the future may hold.

Lembke said the school board will continue to have an update on elementary facilities planning at every meeting next year. No decision will be made on additions to Centennial or Grimsrud until late next year, which would not be implemented until 2019.

"This is all encompassing," Lembke said. "The ideas of expanding Centennial and Grimsrud have multiple factors in whether we're going to do that, (including) are we going to do boundary changes to move these kids to these schools? Also, the cost, transportation and what the community thinks."

Uselman said she agrees with the way the school board is approaching elementary school planning.

"Five years ago, this pace would've been a recipe for disaster because the growth was so big," she said. "In many ways, I'm just thankful that it's slowed down enough, because it felt like before you almost couldn't think trying to stay ahead of the wave of kids, and we were barely ahead."

In addition to finding a solution to elementary school space next year, the school board also will need to decide where to find more space for the district's growing early education program, and, next month, the board will explore an "innovative school" option.

(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)

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Education and Health Reporter