Debate begins on future of Grand Forks' West Elementary School
Monday, the School Board will discuss the possible closure of the north Grand Forks school.
The possibility of West Elementary closing saddens Emily Marto, a parent of two students at West and herself an alumnus of the north Grand Forks school.
"I went there and all my cousins, my whole family went there," Marto said. "My mom, her brothers and sister went to West.”
But as enrollment dwindles and deferred maintenance at the school adds up, Marto and other parents, students and staff wait to learn the fate of the West Elementary. The Grand Forks School Board will continue its discussion of the pros and cons of closing West at its 6 p.m. meeting Monday, Dec. 9, at the Mark Sanford Education Center.
Parents and others are welcome to attend, ask questions and voice their thoughts and concerns. The board will not take action at the meeting, but could make a decision about closing the school at its Jan. 6 meeting, said Bill Palmiscno, board president.
West is being considered for closure because of its low student enrollment, 89, and the demographics of the area, said Palmiscno.
“The outlook by the demographer is that (the population in that area) is not going to improve greatly,” Palmiscno said. “The majority of the housing is rental for UND students. We don’t see a lot of young families moving in.”
Also, because there’s one teacher per grade at West, it’s hard for teachers to be able to collaborate with a same-grade peer, he said.
The decision about West has been put off in the past, he said, and “the board owes the neighborhood a decision.”
If West closes, its students likely will attend Lake Agassiz or Winship, he said. “West is in the middle of the two.”
The issue has come to the forefront as the school district grapples with the high cost of maintaining aging buildings. An estimated $77 million in deferred maintenance is projected throughout the district. Nearly $2.4 million in deferred maintenance is needed at West, said Palmiscno.
About $600,000 per year in staff salaries, benefits and utilities could be saved if West is closed, according to Scott Berge, district business manager.
Other elementary schools, such as Ben Franklin, Kelly and Century, have significant deferred maintenance needs, ranging from $3.6 million to $4.4 million. Grand Forks Central High School, the oldest school in the district, tops the list at $9.8 million, with Red River High School, $8.3 million, and Valley Middle School, $7.2 million, not far behind.
When judging deferred maintenance on a per-pupil basis, West – at $27,517 per pupil – outpaces all other public schools in Grand Forks.
School Board and district officials also are preparing for a June referendum to raise property taxes. Three forums to gather public input on facilities are planned for early next year.
“We’re putting together our master plan,” Palmiscno said. “Do you put (West) in the picture when you are asking for a referendum?”
Costs of old structure, equipment
In older buildings – West is 70 years old – equipment is wearing out or is so outdated that parts and other materials are no longer available.
“Plumbing is one of the biggest issues in this building,” said Chris Arnold, director of buildings and grounds for the school district, on a recent tour of West.
Mixed metals, such as steel and cast iron, in the drain waste vent system for managing sewage lead to deterioration, Arnold said. He called it a “hodge-podge” of materials.
The boiler room and steam valves at West are original to the building, dating to the late ‘40s, he said. “Probably the most concerning feature is the steamline.”
“The piping is way beyond its useful life,” he said. “Only 40% of it is accessible; the remainder is behind concrete. And that’s true with plumbing and heating lines. When you talk about replacing lines, we’re talking about busting floors up.”
Drastic measures like that drive up the deferred maintenance costs.
The lasting effects of misplaced water also plague some buildings in the district, including West.
“We’re dealing with post-Flood (of ‘97) issues,” Arnold said. “There are a lot of water issues at this school.”
Poor ventilation is some classrooms make for health-compromising conditions, too, he said. The “univents” that were designed to bring in outside air, warm it and circulate it, no longer function properly.
“We can’t fix this; it’s a massive construction project,” Arnold said.
The result is “there’s no fresh air” in classrooms, he said, which causes “chronic sickness” among teachers and students.
“One teacher said every hour or two she opens a window for fresh air,” he said, adding that’s not possible in the winter.
The building’s single-pane windows should be replaced with double-pane windows, to increase energy efficiency, Arnold said. The glass block windows, popular in the mid-century, are original to the building but not necessary energy-efficient.
And the school’s flooring is long past its prime, he said.
“A month and a half ago, this carpeting was full of ripples – it looked like ocean waves,” he said. Dryer conditions in recent weeks helped to flatten it back out.
Eric Holum, maintenance supervisor with the district’s building and grounds staff, said, “this stuff has to get done. We don’t have a choice.” Holum pointed out an example of poor design: a custodial closet with a mop sink positioned next to an electrical panel.
“To have an electrical panel near water, well, back then they didn’t think anything of it – not that there’s ever kids in here,” he said. But “we have to bring it up to code.”
“It’s funny when you look back at what was OK,” he said.
Yet, some of the generations of kids who attended this school, and others who have an attachment to it, harbor affection for the place.
Elisa Diederich, the principal at West, said, “People love coming here; people love this place. They are willing to accept a building that’s older.
“You never hear it compared to another school.”
As director of buildings and grounds, Arnold’s goal is to make spaces for learning “habitable, safe and comfortable,” he said.
Looking around the 70-year-old structure, Arnold is mindful of the advantages in options available in equipment and building materials today over those of the past.
“It’s crazy the quality of materials now compared to even 30 years ago – how much it has changed,” he said.
Emily Marto’s children, ages 8 and 10, are in third and fourth grade, respectively. Her youngest is in the school’s smallest class, with 13 students.
“They’re like a little family; they’ve all been together since kindergarten, give or take a few,” she said. “They’re just all so close.”
“We think it’s a luxury to go to a small school,” she said. “My kids know the kindergartners, they know the fifth-graders and the second-graders. They know everybody.”
Some staff members have been there for many years; her children had the same gym teacher that she had when she was a student at West, Marto said.
Other parents she’s talked with also feel sad about West possibly closing, she said. “They don’t want to see their kids go to another school. For my family and my kids, I’d hate to shuffle them to a new school.”
West School “is near and dear to me,” Marto said.
She believes that because the school has a sizable number of students who petitioned specifically to attend West, “that means people are choosing to be there.”
For Radha Panini, the mother of a second- and a fifth-grader at West, the idea that the school may close is “very stressful,” she said.
Her children “are adjusted” at the school, she said. “The school is kind of their comfort zone right now.”
The older child will move on to middle school, but for the younger child, who “is so comfortable there, it’s going to an emotional, stressful time.”
Panini, president of West’s parent-teacher organization, said her children’s experience at West “has been perfect.”
“There’s something to be said for smaller classes. For the teacher, it’s not too overwhelming,” she said. “The teacher is able to pay enough attention to each of the students.”
As a UND math teacher, Panini said she and her colleagues “have found a direct correlation between student success and the class sizes.”
Her family lives in the Lake Agassiz Elementary School boundary area, but chose to enroll their children at West, because of the small classes and the environment, she said. Lake Agassiz has 383 students; West has 89.
Because one of her children is “on the gifted side,” he needed extra attention that is provided “only because teachers (at West) are not overwhelmed,” she said.
While the school district “has had to deal with bullying and schools being overcrowded,” she said, “there’s no issue with bullying at West (because) the kids know each other so well. The environment is so welcoming.”
“The teachers feel so strongly about their students and their classroom. They are emotionally invested,” Panini said. “If there’s an important event in my child’s life, his teacher will be there.”
The former principal, Angela Jonasson, developed “a team that works beautifully together,” she said. “They do an amazing job. They have built this environment, they’ve worked with each other and learned from each other; it’s unfair to take all that they have built and distribute it out.”
The school district needs to offer parents a choice when it comes to sizes of elementary schools, she said.
Other north-end schools have gone through cycles of low enrollment and “have bounced back,” she said. “Why have 400 in one school and 89 in the another? Maybe there’s a middle ground somewhere. Why not talk about redrawing those boundaries?
“We all have reasons to choose West,” she said. “We want West to be open. We tried other schools and they don’t work.”
Grand Forks School Board Meeting:
6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 9
Mark Sanford Education Center
2400 47th Ave. S.