An End … and a Beginning

The final all-school photo from Norman County West Elementary commemorates a year unlike any other in more than one way — including conducting classes for all nine months with students, faculty and staff in masks.

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

The end of the Norman County West School District represents the end of an era for Hendrum, whose school began in 1880, as well as Halstad, which paired with it in 1983, and partners Perley, Georgetown and Shelly. But as the district’s story ends on June 30, the community that supports it is looking to new beginnings.

That includes the youngsters who will attend the renamed Ada-Borup-West district beginning next fall, and the building itself they leave behind.

Superintendent James Hess

“I’ve never been responsible for closing down a school before in my 48 years in education, and I never will do it again,” says NCW superintendent Dr. James Hess. “It’s sad that there will no longer be school children in this beautiful facility and this community that has supported its school so well. But when you look at the larger picture, there’s also joy. This brings more opportunities to our kids. We need to take the perspective of what they will gain. They will be part of a larger district with more offerings – a deeper, richer curriculum.”

Since the fall of 2018, the 190 Norman County West students who had formerly attended the district’s middle and high school in Halstad have been part of Norman County East based in Halstad. The West district has been paying tuition in the form of an increasing portion of its state school aid to Ada. That agreement ended this spring. As of July 1, the two districts are one.

Most of the 70 students in the Hendrum school’s pre-K through fifth grade are transferring to Ada-Borup-West. All have toured their future classrooms and met their teachers in the days leading up to the closure. Some families, though, have chosen to take advantage of open enrollment to send their children to Moorhead or Climax-Shelly.

About half of Hendrum’s 23-person staff have also elected to join Ada-Borup-West. Their employment, says Hess, has been part of consolidation talks throughout recent months.

The board has agonized for years, he says, over finding the best direction for a bright future. They’ll be thinking of that Friday, when a caravan of cars plans to meet at the final bell and follow the buses who carry students away for the last time. “We’re going to follow them, honking and waving,” Hess says. “We will not go away quietly. We’re going to close this chapter with a bang.”

Mayor Curt Johannsen

Curt Johannsen, who has served as Hendrum’s mayor since 2009, sees good things in the soon-empty Hendrum school’s future. “It’s just too good a facility to destroy. The future of Hendrum depends on it.”

The city of Hendrum and its economic development authority are negotiating to buy the 44,000-square-foot school and repurpose it. While the school board has agreed to sell it for $1, the agreement between the two public entities is still under review, so nothing is ready to be announced.

As reported by KRJB Radio of Ada, the city “would purchase the elementary building and grounds, bus shed, playground, basketball court, football fields for $1. Also included in the purchase would be all the kitchen and food service equipment, gymnasium equipment, PA system, stage lights and curtains, bleachers, lockers, cabinets, security systems, and a number of other items that would essentially leave the building intact.”

Johannsen said the January decision to close came as something of a surprise. “We knew enrollment was dropping over the last couple of years, but thought we’d have more time to try to find ways to increase it. Then Covid hit,” he says. “Nobody expected that we’d lose it this quickly.”

The search for alternatives has included everything from a facility operated by the community itself to finding an industrial or commercial client to rent or buy it. “The whole facility is in remarkably good condition,” he points out. “You’re not going to find this kind of a building just 35 miles from Fargo-Moorhead that’s in move-in condition. Who knows what it would cost to build something comparable?”

The bottom line, the mayor says, is that the property may hold the key to replacing the local jobs that the school’s departure is costing the community of 300. “There may be a company that’s looking around the area for a facility, not even aware that a prime facility like this is immediately available,” Johannsen says hopefully. “We want to talk to them now.”

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