New public school opens in Minnewaukan, N.D.Breeanne Hinojos and Ellen Salisbury directed traffic as the first busloads of students filed into the spanking new Minnewaukan Public School for their first day of classes Thursday morning. “Second graders, come this way. You go that way,” said Hinojos, a first-grade teacher.
By: By Kevin Bonham, Forum News Service, The Jamestown Sun
MINNEWAUKAN, N.D. — Breeanne Hinojos and Ellen Salisbury directed traffic as the first busloads of students filed into the spanking new Minnewaukan Public School for their first day of classes Thursday morning.
“Second graders, come this way. You go that way,” said Hinojos, a first-grade teacher.
“This way,” said Salisbury, the school’s reading supervisor as she spotted another who reluctantly was holding back. “Come on, sweet pea. You go this way.”
For many of the estimated 305 students, Thursday was the first time they stepped into the $10.1 million school that replaces an aging, overcrowded school a couple of miles away on the east side of Minnewaukan, a facility that’s been threatened for several years by the chronically flooding Devils Lake.
“Some of them got a peek just before Christmas,” said Dianne Mikkelson, school business manger. “And some of the bigger kids helped to move some of the bigger stuff out here.”
As students filled classrooms and hallways Thursday, contractors milled about, too, scrambling to finish projects and making last-minute adjustments.
When the flooding began in the early 1990s, the lake was nearly 30 feet lower than it is today and about 8 miles away from Minnewaukan.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a 3,000-foot-long temporary dike in 2011 to keep the water from reaching the school or from threatening the community’s water tower, water and sewer systems and about a dozen low-lying houses and other buildings.
The elevation peaked in 2011, reaching a record 1,454.4 feet above sea level, before falling about 3 feet over the past 18 months. State officials attribute 2 feet of the drop to a year-long mini-drought, and the other foot to the operation of two controversial outlets to the Sheyenne River.
Devils Lake, normally a closed basin, would overflow naturally at an elevation of 1,458 feet.
The new school sits alone on a hill, about 30 feet higher than the original townsite, on the west side of U.S. Highway 281 in a new development called New Minnewaukan. Windows line the east and west walls, the former providing a panoramic view of the lake that has earned the local nickname “the Beast to the East.”
“It’s pretty exciting,” said librarian Valerie Luhman, who was busy Thursday trying to organize the school’s new Learning Resource Center, which still was under construction. “It’ll be good when it’s all finished,” she said, “but it’s nice to have a view.”
The school is built in three pods arranged according to age group, with pre-kindergarten to second grade pupils on the far south end and the junior and senior high students on the north side.
“The old school was so crowded. We needed the separation,” said High School Principal Ron Carlson, who also attended his first meeting Thursday as a member of the Benson County Commission. He was elected in November.
Come spring, local officials expect a community to grow up around New Minnewaukan.
“It’s been a big project, not just the school, but the whole thing,” said Superintendent Myron Jury, who also is Minnewaukan’s mayor.
Outside the school grounds, city streets have been roughed in, marked by stakes poking out of the snow.
Construction of water, sewer lines and streets will begin this spring. Some 119 residential building lots will be available, along with a commercial development on the north end.
The school was built with about $11 million in federal and state grants, according to Jury, with enough money left over to build a new school-bus garage this year.
North Dakota’s congressional delegation secured a $4.8 million Federal Emergency Management Agency hazard mitigation grant last year to relocate portions of the city to the new development.
That includes $3.8 million to acquire and demolish 57 structures, plus $1 million to acquire and relocate 18 to higher ground. An additional 21 structures were acquired in related projects.
While just 12 lots have been sold so far, another 50 or 60 have been reserved, as current Minnewaukan residents await FEMA acquisition offers.
“We won’t know how many will move out here until probably summertime,” Jury said.
With 60-plus school district employees, plus other Minnewaukan residents who lived at lower elevations, interest has been high.
“We’d like to see an eight-plex put up out here,” he said. “We think we’d fill it up.”
The school’s enrollment already has risen by about 10 percent in the past year, largely because of the addition of a pre-kindergarten class. More than 90 percent of the students live on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation.
Few students actually live in Minnewaukan, the Benson County seat. Many families have moved away in recent years, as floodwaters compromised basements and utilities in lower parts of the community.
The population officially dropped from 340 to 228 between 2000 and 2010, although local officials estimate the count is closer to 180 today. The rural countryside has been emptying, too.
“The lake swallowed a lot of these farms out here,” Jury said.
But he’s confident the new development will help the community grow.
Minnewaukan, now on the west shore of the lake, is home to an expanding recreational fishing industry. While no lots have been sold in the commercial portion of the new development, some have expressed interest.
“It’s been a lot of work to get this far, and we still have a lot to do,” the mayor said. “But we think we’ve got a good future.”