About half of Grand Forks School Board candidates support $55 million referendum

Eleven of 20 respondents to a Herald School Board candidate survey favor the district's proposed $55 million referendum for a new Valley Middle School and district central kitchen.

Mark Sanford Center Grand Forks schools logo sign tower.jpg
The Mark Sanford Education Center, headquarters of Grand Forks Public Schools. (Grand Forks Herald photo)
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GRAND FORKS – Eleven of the 20 School Board candidates who responded to a six-question survey from the Grand Forks Herald support a $55 million referendum to build a new Valley Middle School.

Seven do not support the initiative and two candidates did not state a position.

Those who support the referendum are Josh Anderson, Dave Berger, Monte Gaukler, Senta Grzadzielewski, Jacqueline Hassett, Jennifer Kolodka, Joel Larson, Cameron Murphy, Bill Palmiscno, Kelly Schempp and Emily Wros. 

Candidates who indicated they do not support the referendum are Ron Barta, Dee Decimus, Elizabeth Delgado, Bonnie McMullin, Mark D. Peterson, Brad Sturlaugson and David Waterman.

In launching the survey, the Herald reached out to all 23 candidates who are vying for five School Board seats, all of which are at-large positions.


Three candidates — Roland Riemers, Courtney Kniert and Aaron Waterman — did not respond to the initial email with the survey or a follow-up email reminder.  

Hassett and Palmiscno are running as incumbents.

All of the candidates are running for four-year terms, which begin in July. The election is June 14.

Proposed facilities

The $55 million referendum election, set for Sept. 27, would include the construction of a new Valley Middle School and building of a new central kitchen for the school district, which currently is housed at Valley.

The new central kitchen facility would be a 9,500-square-foot addition to the Mark Sanford Education Center, 2400 47th Ave. S. That location, district administrators say, would allow for easier and more convenient access for large delivery trucks.

If approved, the proposed Valley Middle School, for grades 6-8, will be built next to the current school at North 20th Street and Sixth Avenue. The current building would be razed after the new building is completed. The new structure would occupy about 125,000 to 150,000 square feet and accommodate about 650 students.

The potential project’s design would start in the fall, with construction starting in 2023. The expected completion date would be the 2024-25 school year.

Some candidates are in favor of building a new Valley Middle School, saying that it’s essential for students there to have a learning environment on par with students at Schroeder and South middle schools.


Others said there are other pressing needs throughout the school district, they want more information on the project, and are questioning how the proposed Valley Middle School project affects other infrastructure needs. Some candidates are critical of district leaders’ stewardship of funds and want to see a thorough examination of the district’s financial situation.

Supporting referendum

Josh Anderson supports the referendum because “our students deserve a better environment to learn in and our teachers and staff deserve to be able to deliver an educational experience that is exceptional and work in a facility that supports that to the fullest extent.

“At this time, this is not happening; simply put, we need to do better,” Anderson said. “The community as a whole will benefit from the referendum and new facility.”

Senta Grzadziewlewski supports the referendum, she told the Herald.

“I support the building of new facilities when the old facilities no longer provide a safe and equitable learning environment for the students,” she said. “Additionally, I support neighborhood schools.

“I think the community should care about the state of our schools, whether they have children in the system, homeschool, have no kids, etc.,” Grzadziewlewski said.

She said an effective communications campaign is needed to inform voters of the current state of the schools and provide “a clear understanding of what they will gain from their investment … in terms of the facility specifics and sustainability, as well as how the success of students positively impacts the community’s future.”

Jennifer Kolodka said that, although she is “not happy that we are in this position,” she will support the referendum. “(A)ny frustration I (or we) have with the lack of management over the district’s finances for the past decade does not mean I (or we) take it out on the current students and teachers.”


The district has buildings that are “in desperate need of repair and if they ignore some of those maintenance requests even longer, it is only going to result in an even bigger bill down the road for the next school board and the taxpayers,” Kolodka said. “This passing off of the baton to the next guy is exactly what got us into this situation and we simply cannot ignore it any longer.”

In light of the school district’s financial challenges, the board must identify sources for more revenue or cut expenses, or both, she said, noting that she would bring a fresh perspective to the issues and would analyze the budget “to find ways to be more efficient in the use of every single taxpayer dollar.

“These are hard times financially for families and for businesses, and the board needs to be respectful of that situation and be held responsible, accountable, and transparent in the way they spend money if they’re going to tap into the taxpayers’ pockets for more help with the referendum,” she said.

Regarding the referendum, Cameron Murphy said, “We need to make sure that we have a plan and present this to the community, not just for Valley, but on how this affects the district as a whole. Other buildings are also in distress and need (to be) refurbished or replaced and these need to be taken into consideration.”

Bill Palmiscno said Valley Middle School “needs to be replaced to provide equal opportunity for all students within our district.” Further, he said, the central kitchen should be “moved out of a neighborhood location and placed in a better location to access all schools.”

Emily Wros said, “Based on my current understanding of the situation, I’ll support the referendum. I have concerns about how we came to be in this fiscal situation in the first place, but here we are. Buildings don’t fix or build themselves, and construction crews won’t work for free.”  

Against referendum

Among those candidates who said they do not support the referendum is Ron Barta, who said, (“T)his district has proven that it is not a good steward with funding and should not be provided any greater amount until we can be shown a good return on investment. “Appropriated funds (not earning, but asking) are looked at by some as a never-ending purse.”

The city taxes here “are some of the highest I have ever paid … ” Barta said.”Taxes must be managed effectively and any savings we can obtain must go back to the taxpayer.”

Others who indicated they would not support the referendum:

Elizabeth Delgado: “We have got to take care of existing issues before building a new building that will eventually add to the maintenance and repair issues. Existing environments should always be maintained before plans for any new projects are drawn up. We need to bring our current schools to a sufficient state so our students can thrive. After (maintenance) items are taken care of, the board might realize that we don’t really need to replace a building with a new one.”

Bonnie McMullin: “I have a very hard time supporting the idea of building a new school when there is so much other need in our district."

Valley Middle School “is in need of dramatic facility upgrades,” McMullin said. “At a minimum, I think Valley Middle School needs immediate, although short term, action taken like relocatable classrooms.”

“We cannot spend our way out of a crisis,” she said. “New buildings still have costs. We cannot keep asking our citizens and farmers to foot the bill of our financial mismanagement. I think $55 million would go a lot further fixing our current school buildings and aging classroom technology needs."

Mark D. Peterson: “A full audit of the books would have to be done first, along with performance assessments for everyone and everything. Based off what I’ve seen, there’s plenty of overhead that can be cut. I don’t buy that we don’t have the money available to make appropriate fixes where needed and to do things at conservative costs that would come in within a balanced budget.”  

Concerning the referendum, here are the complete answers from others who answered the question: Will you support the proposed $55 million referendum? Why or why not?

Dee Decimus: “Not at this time, until it can be more defined.”

Brad Sturlaugson:The proposed referendum is not needed with the proper budgeting of the tax dollars the GF School (system) receives from the state and federal government.” 

David Waterman:I will not support any additional funding mechanisms until our current ones have been thoroughly examined and reviewed. I believe there is great waste in our current system that needs to be addressed first.”


In their survey responses, Sona Lesmeister and Marie Stewart did not state whether they would support the referendum.

Lesmeister listed several questions she would need answered before taking a position, reflecting concerns about whether the project can be completed within the estimated time frame and costs.

“If (the referendum) is solely focusing on building a new middle school, which without a doubt is much desired, what about all the other buildings that are in disrepair (or) needing maintenance?” she said. “Do we earmark funds for future building maintenance needs? It isn’t very clear to me from the financial report I saw. I do not believe we can answer this new building question without serious consideration for the existing buildings in the district.”

Stewart said “the voters will decide the fate of Valley Middle School,” along with other points about the referendum issue.

To read each of the candidate’s complete answers to this and other questions from the questionnaire, go to the Herald’s website and search for this headline: " Grand Forks School Board candidates: A look at their answers to six questions from the Herald "

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Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at or (701) 780-1107.
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