Grand Forks district administrators address range of voter concerns in livestream referendum forum

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Jun. 18—Grand Forks voters want to know how the school district would handle bus transportation, potentially congested pick-up and drop-off sites and other concerns if a referendum passes next week and a proposed K-8 campus is built on the city's north end.

They had the opportunity to ask district administrators about these and other concerns during a one-hour, livestreamed question-and-answer session Thursday, June 17, via the district's Facebook site.

In the Tuesday, June 22, election, polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Alerus Center.

Superintendent Terry Brenner, Business Manager Scott Berge, and Buildings and Grounds Director Chris Arnold outlined why they believe the referendum is necessary and, to some extent, explained the district's difficult financial situation, which has been exacerbated by aging infrastructure and catastrophic equipment failures.

The administrators provided some details on the exact location of the new campus and what the future could hold for West, Wilder and Winship elementary schools, if the referendum passes.

The school district and the School Board are proposing that the three "W" schools and Valley Middle School be combined into a K-8 building that would be built where Valley now stands.

Brenner emphasized that the K-8 campus essentially would be two schools — an elementary school and a middle school — with shared spaces between them dedicated to functions such as administration, counseling, special education, HVAC and electrical control systems.

In Tuesday's election, voters are being asked to weigh in on two questions — one on issuing $86 million in general obligation bonds to construct a new K-8 north-end school at the current Valley Middle School site, as well as for projects throughout the district.

If passed, the bond issue would allow the district to close and consolidate Valley Middle School and West, Wilder and Winship elementary schools into one K-8 campus — Valley would be razed — and address high-priority infrastructure needs at all of its 18 buildings.

The monthly tax impact on a homeowner would be $8.23 per $100,000 in taxable property value.

The other question asks voters to approve raising the mill levy for the district's building fund from 10 to 20 mills, the maximum allowed by the state.

Each question requires a 60% "yes" vote to pass.

Increasing the mill levy for the building fund would allow the district to maintain its facilities and provide general fund proceeds to focus on student and staff needs such as student programs, learning materials, compensation and benefits.

It would result in a monthly tax impact of $3.75 per $100,000 in taxable property value.

Other large school districts in the state "have two to four-and-a-half times the mill levy Grand Forks has for buildings (maintenance)," Berge said.

Since 2016, the district has taken $11.5 million out of its general fund — typically used for day-to-day expenses — to handle catastrophic failures, Brenner said.

On the topic of busing, Brenner assured the audience that transportation to the new campus has been discussed with the School Board and he expects it to be considered again, if the referendum passes. Currently, transportation is provided for English language learners and special education students; those who cannot afford bus tickets are supported by the Grand Forks Foundation for Education and a similar plan may be worked out for those attending the new campus.

Deliberations about West, which has been closed for more than a year due to unacceptable radon levels and other HVAC issues, are in the early stages and the district is working with the School Board on plans to sell the property, which is zoned for single-family dwellings, Arnold said. "Or it could be redeveloped into something else, but now the plan is to revitalize the property," which could be sectioned into nine lots for homes.

The school district "is not interested in repurposing those (north-end) schools," Brenner said. The K-12 student enrollment is 2,600 fewer now than in 1995, "yet we have the same footprint" in terms of facilities.

Taken altogether, the district's buildings "are averaging more than 70 years old," Arnold said, and the maintenance employees "have done an incredible job of making systems last well beyond their natural life."

The per-student cost of deferred maintenance for Wilder and Winship ranges from $3,000 to $4,000 higher than for larger schools in the district, Berge said.

About 400 students would flow from the "W" schools into the larger elementary school, but a bigger school doesn't not necessary mean large class sizes, Brenner said, noting that a student-teacher ratio of around 19-to-1 would be achievable.

If the K-8 campus is built, the new structure would be situated west of the current Valley school, to put it in proximity with University Park, Arnold said. A separate playground for the elementary school is planned, he said.

Arrival and dismissal times for the elementary and middle schools would be staggered to reduce traffic congestion, Arnold said.

The plan to move the district's central kitchen from Valley to the Mark Sanford Education Center, on South 47th Avenue, "gets rid of heavy traffic at Valley on Sixth Avenue North," an area that's overrun with 18-wheel semis "all day long," he said.

In response to a specific question from an audience member, Brenner said there are "no plans to close Lake Agassiz (Elementary School)."

In response to a question about a second referendum, totaling $64 million for the closing Lewis & Clark and consolidating it into Ben Franklin and closing Viking and consolidating it into Kelly in the future — all elementary schools, Brenner said that is part of second phase of the plan proposed by the Facilities Task Force and that he'd be "out of turn" to talk about that at this point.

And if voters reject the $86 million bond issue Tuesday, what will the district do?

"That's to be determined," Brenner said, noting that difficult decisions would have to be made.

"Our budget cannot afford to sustain the campuses it currently has."

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