Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Six years ago, when a new elementary school and high school were still but a gleam in the Moorhead School District’s eye, administrators already knew they had more than one capacity problem.
The most obvious challenge was Moorhead High School, whose growing enrollment was on the brink of overwhelming its 50-year-old building. Those deliberations culminated in the plan to rebuild the high school, funded by the successful passage of a $110 million bond issue last November.
But with almost every class of incoming kindergartners exceeding the one before it, the district was also being pinched at the other end of the K-12. The answer: Dorothy Dodds Elementary, opened in 2017. But even with the addition of that fourth K-4 facility, like other elementaries, serves 750 children won’t keep up with growth projected by the mid-2020s. Nor were the district’s facilities for transportation, food service and maintenance large enough to accommodate what was expected of them.
Dealing with the squeeze … that’s what touched off the complex series of moves that includes the new Moorhead Public School Operations Center completed this spring. It’s a game of chess that brings Moorhead one step closer to the ultimate win: finding ways to accommodate the pressing demands of growth at the most economical cost to taxpayers.
“We already knew we needed the ops center,” Superintendent Brandon Lunak explains, showing a visitor through the nearly 100,000-square-foot structure at 1301 30th Ave. S. The plan grew from the initial “bus barn” to space for other cramped district services, at the same time freeing up their former spaces for new uses.
The handsome low-profile ops center at 1013 30th Ave. S. incorporates much of the old Muscatell Super Center building, acquired by the district for $2.7 million in 2017, along with new construction over the former used car dealership’s lots. The western section houses Moorhead’s 26-plus buses and vehicles along with a service department and wash bay – a boon for drivers of the diesel equipment when subzero temperatures return this winter.
In addition, the center is set to deliver substantial savings for the other programs that share the space. Along with a prep kitchen, the school food service gains expansive storage areas. That will permit the raw materials for school lunches to be purchased in bulk and stored until they’re needed at substantial savings. “We have been renting storage space in Fargo for supplies, then sending a truck over there every week to pick up what’s needed in the short run,” the superintendent explains. “This saves the cost of rent, with having everything delivered twice.”
The money saved by buying in bulk will be dramatic. He points to just one item, garbage liners. “Every classroom uses two a day,” he says. “Over one year, we’ll save $18,000 by buying them by the truckload.”
But that’s not all. The ops center also accommodates the district’s administrative offices, from the IT department through all business operations. They had been housed in what was called the Probstfield Center for Education, the former elementary school sidelined when its students were divided between the new Dodds and S.G. Reinertson schools. Offices moved into that space, along with early childhood and continuing education programs.
“Warehouse and office space is the cheapest thing we can build,” Lunak observes. With the looming need for a fifth elementary, redeploying Probstfield made sense. Building a new elementary from the ground up would come in at $27 million or more, but the prospects of a bond issue right now to fund it seemed dim. After Moorhead’s enthusiastic passage of the high school bond issue last year, he and other leaders recognized that adding that amount would be a bridge too far for the community to cross.
A community survey priority to the bond referendum showed well over 50% of city residents would vote for the $110 million bond for the new high school and separate career center. But their support dropped off dramatically as the prospective cost increased. The polling proved to be true; the bond was approved by just over three out of four voters. “Increasing it to $135 or $140 million to cover another new elementary school would have doomed the whole thing,” he reflects.
So, instead, Probstfield will once again welcome children from kindergarten through fourth grade in years to come – a good thing, since enrollment in the four existing elementaries, with a total capacity of 3,000 kids, is expected to inch up toward 2,800 this fall.
Moving the admin offices emptied part of the space that will again become classrooms. The early childhood programs housed in the rest of the building will relocate over the coming year, too, in another chess-like move … to the former Globe University building at the intersection of I-94 and 34th Street South. Renamed the Vista Center, the nearly new building was acquired by the district in 2016 under at $4.2 million 25-year lease/buy agreement when the for-profit business college closed. It now houses the Red River Alternative Learning Center. But that will be moving, too.
Opening the Career Center late next year will be the final piece in play on the district’s chessboard. Construction of the new vocational center – a key part of plans for the new high school – is expected to begin Aug. 1. Every student enrolled at the expanded Moorhead High will eventurally spend part of their time in classes there, easing the need for excessive space in the high school itself while opening the door to a wide variety of skills and careers.
Lunak says that buying the former Sam’s Club property north of Interstate 94 to house the Career Center represented a huge savings, compared to starting anew on a ground-up project. “It was valued at $7.8 million. We were able to pick it up for $4 million. If we had to build it new, it would come in upward of $20 million just to replicate what’s there,” he says. While the utilities, parking lot and landscaping are already largely in place, the building itself is scheduled to be gutted and entirely redesigned. By the time the project is completed in 12 to 13 months, he predicts, it will look, feel and operate entirely differently: “You’ll never think of it as ‘the old Sam’s Club’ again.”