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Fargo and West Fargo school districts should merge

Now is the time for Fargo and West Fargo public school districts – and the elected board members who lead those districts – to seriously consider merging.

Yes, one large school district for Fargo and West Fargo rather than the two separate districts we have today. We’d urge Moorhead to be considered in that merger, too, but state lines make that far more complicated and far less likely.

But Fargo and West Fargo as one school district makes a lot of sense and is within reach.

And what better time to seriously look at this than when both districts are starting to search for new superintendents?

Last week, West Fargo superintendent David Flowers announced he was retiring at the end of this school year. The week before, Fargo superintendent Jeff Schatz announced he was doing the same. Moorhead superintendent Lynne Kovash retired at the end of November, too.

When asked at his retirement announcement whether now is the time to merge Fargo and West Fargo districts, West Fargo’s Flowers, age 66, said he didn’t think it was likely in his lifetime.

Flowers understands the political obstacles of such an effort. West Fargo, especially, is well defined by its school district and is one of – if not the – fastest-growing districts in the state.

Famously tax rich because the district’s boundaries include the big commercial and newgrowth areas of Fargo, West Fargo schools have enjoyed tremendous growth rates.

But as the strain of all that school and city growth catches up to West Fargo district taxpayers, the property-tax playing field between the two districts is leveling.

Many newcomers to the area marvel that a good chunk of Fargo resides within the West Fargo school district. In fact, West Fargo’s next new elementary school is in Fargo city limits.

Which begs the question: Why must this arbitrary dividing line exist?

By combining the school districts, there could be one leadership team, one district office, one school board, once transportation center, one central kitchen … the efficiencies go on and on.

And all that means more money in taxpayers’ pockets and more opportunities for staff and, most importantly, students.

An added benefit is the political and financial clout such a district would have within the state. A combined metro district would yield a lot of power to get things done.

There are many ways to keep representation of interests spread across both cities. Maybe school board members are elected from certain areas of the two cities rather than at large.

The bottom line is that schools belong to neighborhoods and parts of town, but a school district need not be defined in the same way.

We understand this is challenging tradition. We see the same challenges when small-town school districts are forced to merge in order to stay alive. But the opposite is true, too. There is great opportunity in partnerships. There can be great cost-savings for taxpayers, many of whom struggle to feed and clothe their own schoolchildren.

It’s an idea whose time has come. The two school boards should discuss it. They should commit to studying the benefits – and the drawbacks – of merging. They could start by merging their backoffice departments like human resources and payroll.

And when superintendent candidates are being interviewed by both school boards this spring, one question that should get asked is, “Would you commit to working toward a unified school district with your neighboring district counterpart?”

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