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HORACE, N.D. — For the first time in at least 10 years, a new school in the West Fargo School District will not open on the first day of the school year, as planned.
Officials say due to a number of issues mostly beyond the contractors' control, West Fargo's newest high school, West Fargo Horace High at 8100 Lakeview Drive in Horace, will not open Aug. 26 when the rest of the district's schools welcome back students.
However, the district will have room next door at Heritage Middle School for the freshmen and sophomores, roughly 300 students, who were to begin classes at Horace High in August. The new high school will draw students from Heritage and Liberty middle schools.
"The real unfortunate piece is that a middle school really isn't equipped the same as a high school. There will be a few challenges in the coursework we offer, such as construction, chemistry, health careers, advanced bio and those sort of things that go beyond what we have spaces and equipment for in a middle school. But, we do have schedules, and classroom space is figured out," said Mark Lemer, construction coordinator for the district.
Lemer said the delayed start is due to a "series of challenges" that began even before the groundbreaking while working with the fast growing city of Horace, which had an estimated population of 2,944 in 2019.
"There were some issues in terms of timing of plan review and permitting, so that sort of delayed the initial groundbreaking," Lemer said. "Now that we're building in earnest, there are a number of product and material backups that have caused delays in the schedule. The supply chain issues are still out there. They have been plaguing us."
He said Gast Construction, lead contractor on the project, has experienced many building supply difficulties as, across the world, building supply costs have gone up and availability is very low.
The district's third high school is not the first project West Fargo Public Schools and Gast Construction have completed. Gast was responsible for building and finishing on time, Liberty Middle School, the Hulbert Aquatic Center, the Leidal Education Center, Cheney Middle School, Aurora Elementary School and the Sheyenne High School stadium project.
"We've definitely had challenges before, pretty much getting right down to the wire, but we've always managed to overcome those challenges and had kids in the school on the first day," Lemer said.
In the region, some contractors lately have had trouble hiring enough workers. Gast has not had workforce issues, but some subcontractors on the project have struggled with retaining workers, Lemer said.
"There were a couple of trades that struggled to get on site with the appropriate manpower, which caused some impact but it was not the driving force" for the delay, Lemer said.
Like most of its building project contracts in the past, the school district does not have penalties for delayed completion. Lemer said the district did not add the clause to any recent building projects as they sometimes still don't cover delays beyond a contractor's control.
"How do you hold a contractor responsible for those types of delays? You end up just having a squabble with contractors over is it really fair to assess them," Lemer said. "To date, we haven't really pushed on that. Now that we have a project going past the start of school, it may be necessary."
The district does not yet have a firm opening date for the Horace High School building, but one is expected soon.
"What we don't want to do is get a date out there that we don't achieve. That would exacerbate the problem," Lemer said. "We're looking at a delay that will be beyond the first weeks of school."
The project was planned to open in phases, with the primary building opening for classes in August and music rehearsal spaces, auditoriums and a set of classrooms being finished later in the year. Lemer said the later phases have been pushed back further and what is needed to initially open the building has been dialed down, such as the gym and locker rooms, which will now be finished in a later phase.
"So the office, commons, kitchen, classrooms will be done first, and the gym and locker rooms will follow shortly after," he said.
District spokeswoman Stephanie Hansen sent a message about the high school's construction to parents last week and plans to continue updating parents and staff through the district's website. The next email update is scheduled for Monday, Aug. 2, and is expected to include details on fall activities, building schedules and transportation.