- Associated Press - Monday, January 9, 2017

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - The three Bismarck middle schools are spilling over with students.

By 2021-22, Bismarck Public Schools is expected to gain 1,900 students, with 740 at the middle schools alone, The Bismarck Tribune (https://bit.ly/2i35SX1 ) reported.

Each middle school has reached capacity or is expected to in the upcoming years. Some schools have overcrowded lunch rooms, crammed hallways and lack adequate gym space and rooms for music practice, leaving some students to practice their instruments in the halls.

“I’m busting right now,” said Tabetha Rabenberg, principal at Horizon Middle School. “(The school’s) not meant for over 900 kids.”

The Bismarck School Board has set a March 7, 2017, special election to allow voters to choose whether to approve a $57.5 million bond issue for middle school space, as well as some renovations and additions at Bismarck High School and Century High School.

Principals at the middle schools and the two high schools met with local architects over the summer to devise a plan and then presented drawings to the school board last month.

The principals said the process included input from staff members, who helped determine the needs for the buildings.

“I’m not a music teacher, but my music teachers know what we need. Science teachers know what kind of needs we have,” said Russ Riehl, principal at Simle Middle School.

Simle was built in 1962, and the last time the school was renovated was in 2007, Riehl said. The school is seeking $12.3 million to build a two-level addition to the building’s east side, where the district owns three apartment buildings. Those buildings would be torn down, and the addition would connect to the school. Also, the school’s entrance would be moved to the east side to help improve traffic flow on 19th Street.

Simle was built for 850 students, but has 1,015 and still gaining, Riehl said. The addition would add more classrooms and two more science labs. Funding also would go toward more gym space, music practice rooms, either with the addition or through repurposing existing space.

“We just need to get our kids out of the halls,” Riehl said.

Horizon Middle School is seeking $7.4 million to improve its music and physical education space, as well as construct a two-level addition to the west of the building and add a new, secured entrance.

Horizon, built in 2001, has reserved music space for its students in a small, old technology room.

“Half the time, they’re playing in the hallway, because they don’t have the space and they don’t have practice rooms,” said Rabenberg, principal of the school.

Part of the bond money would provide funding for an orchestra room with the right acoustics, said Rabenberg, who has been principal at Horizon for a year and half. Previously, she served as a principal in a school district in a suburb outside of Des Moines, Iowa.

“I came from a fast-growing district. I came from a place where we were building new schools and we were doing renovations,” she said. “It’s nice to have that experience before you have to go through it again.”

Rabenberg spent the afternoon of Dec. 14, in a meeting with a team of administrators to discuss the latest overcrowding issue: not enough space during lunch. The school is over capacity at 1,000 students.

Most of the middle school principals, including Horizon, have already taken matters into their own hands. Simle silenced its school bells this year and staggered class times to avoid congested hallways. Rabenberg has decided to add a fourth lunch period next school year to accommodate the more than 300 students in the cafetorium.

Rabenberg said this is just one example of answers the school has found to address the influx of students.

“We’re trying to do some creative solutions, but you can only get so creative, especially when you’re trying to give the kids the best possible education,” she said. “It’s not fair that you have to be creative all the time and, ‘Oh, you’re just going to have to do this because we don’t have the space.’”

At Wachter Middle School, it is estimated $10.7 million would be needed for repairs and additional academic space. With bond money, the school would add two, two-story classroom wings to the north of the school, creating a total of 14 regular classrooms.

Wachter also is looking to add a new gymnasium onto the building next to the track. The building was constructed in 1968 and has 860 students, with another 300 anticipated in the next three to four years.

“To add another 300 kids in this building and not create another (gym) space like that for that particular area, we would never be able to function,” said Lee Ziegler, principal of the school.

Adjacent to the cafetorium in Wachter would be a new music practice space for band, orchestra and choir. The new area also would have garage doors that would open into the cafetorium, allowing for more seating for performances.

Dana Van Heukelom, who has been the orchestra teacher for six years, rushed between classrooms Dec. 14.

Van Heukelom moves every hour all over the building because she doesn’t have a classroom. Students store their instruments in the hallways because they ran out of space in the band room.

“That would be great. Then we wouldn’t lose rehearsal time setting up,” Van Heukelom said.

After the new Legacy High School opened last year, the two older high schools in Bismarck are seeking upgrades and expanded space.

Steve Madler, of Century High School, said the school needs to enlarge its lunch room area. Due to the sheer number of students, some students have to wait 20 to 25 minutes in line to get their food.

The lunch room seats 320 to 340 students, and enrollment totals 1,200 students and is expected to reach nearly 1,600 in the next five years.

“When we get to 1,600 students, that space with three lunches isn’t going to accommodate it,” Madler said.

Century is seeking $13 million that will include enlarging the lunch room, making improvements to the Family and Consumer Science area and adding 15 classrooms to the northeast end of the building.

More classrooms mean the school could get rid of its six portables - small, transportable classrooms - located outside the building, Madler said.

Bismarck High School also is looking to add some new space, including a long-awaited auditorium. Since David Wisthoff became principal of the school seven years ago, a new auditorium has been high on the list of priorities.

Bismarck High is seeking $14.1 million to build a 650-seat auditorium on the north side of the school. Wisthoff said the school is the only Class A high school in the state without an auditorium.

Currently, students in the school’s arts programs have concerts downtown in the Belle Mehus Auditorium or the Knaak Performance Center, which is located at the school. The Knaak Center is also used as P.E. space, and the school loses that space on days there are musical performances.

The Knaak Center, which seats 485, is older, and the floors creak, which Wishoff said is noticeable during performances.

Bismarck High also is looking to add a three-court gymnasium to its current varsity gym. The new space would create locker rooms for visiting teams and physical education classes.

“(The gym) was built in ‘98, so it’s fairly new, it’s just as we grow, to get that additional instructional space down here for us will be very beneficial,” Wisthoff said.

In March, Bismarck Public Schools will ask voters to approve a $57.5 million bond issue, which would expire in 20 years.

The bond issue is not expected to increase homeowners’ taxes, but taxable levels won’t return to a baseline when the district retires some old bonds this school year, according to Darin Scherr, business and operations manager for Bismarck schools. Thus, the current taxing level for bonds would be extended another 20 years.

Scherr said the district is proposing to borrow the maximum amount from the School Construction Loan Program from the Bank of North Dakota, and the remaining $37.5 million will be placed on the bond market.

If the bond passes, the district will look to begin construction at the middle schools in the spring to get space by fall 2018. If the bond does not pass, Superintendent Tamara Uselman said more portables would be the “obvious answer.”

But portables are costly at $100,000 each and hold up to 25 students, she said. The district either builds them or has them built and costs include moving them, placing them on a foundation and hooking up electricity.

“When people think (portables are) not costly, they’re not looking at all the underground and the moving work. But they’ll cost you as much as a brick and mortar classroom and more,” Uselman said.

Uselman said she would prefer not to use portables, partly due to concerns over safety and inclement weather.

“For any number of reasons, starting with a fair and decent educational space, I would prefer that they have room inside the building. I think there are problems with portables in the modern age, and yet we have had to use them, and I think teachers have made them work as best they can,” she said.

“So there are some concerns, but we have made it work. I think without question, it would be problematic to make portables work for 1,900 kids,” she said.

Uselman’s office is launching an information campaign, which will be done through public meetings in January, and principals will inform staff and parent-teacher organizations.

“Our goal is to try to educate people so that they can vote, and we then have permission from the community to build new space or permission from the community to try to figure it out otherwise, because we need middle school space now and we’ll need it worse by the fall of ‘18,” Uselman said.


Information from: Bismarck Tribune, https://www.bismarcktribune.com

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