The proposed nomination of six public schools to the National Register of Historic Places has prompted the Grand Forks School Board to weigh potential consequences.
The Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission is preparing to nominate five elementary schools and a middle school for inclusion on the National Register. The schools -- West, Lewis and Clark, Viking, Wilder and Ben Franklin elementary schools and Valley Middle School -- were selected based on their mid-century modern architectural style.
School board members and administrators expressed concerns about how the nomination, if approved, could affect future decisions about facilities, including demolition, remodeling and repurposing.
In recent years, the board has considered closing some small, older elementary schools and moving students into a single, larger school.
Chuck Flemmer, chairman of the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission, said worries over whether the federal government might place restrictions on changes to buildings as a result of placement on the National Register, are probably unwarranted. The use of federal funds triggers the Section 106 review, a federal law that allows the government “to make sure there are no adverse effects” to the structure, Flemmer said.
In the more than 50 years since the law was enacted, the school district has carried out “probably thousands of projects” at Grand Forks Central High School and has never had to comply with that requirement, he said.
“Since they haven’t had to have it in the past, the chance of them having to have a Section 106 review now or in the future is really really slim or negligible. It probably is a non-issue," he said.
At its meeting last week, school board members reviewed an opinion by Richard Olson, an attorney with the Olson, Juntunen, Sandberg and Boettner law firm, which represents the school district. Olson cautioned the board about permitting the nomination to go forward because, if federal funds are used to make changes to a structure, the district could be required to go through a Section 106 review.
The terms of this review are “very broad,” Olson said in a memo to Superintendent Terry Brenner.
“Potentially, repairs, renovations and alterations of any kind could trigger a Section 106 review," Olson said.
While acknowledging that inclusion on the National Register is an honor, Olson said placement on the National Register “may inhibit the utilization of new technology, future teaching opportunities and techniques” in the schools, as well as inhibit repairs to heating, cooling and ventilation systems.
Changes in a building’s structure or its facade could be more expensive, take more time and restrict the district’s choices for rehabilitation or remodeling, he said.
“Our responsibility is to give you the worst-case scenario,” Olson said. “We’d be remiss if we didn’t tell you what could be a potential issue.”
It’s not the intent of the commission “to impede the school board in any way,” said Flemmer, emphasizing the commission’s role in recognizing historic structures. “We want to be good stewards. You can stop this process at any point. I believe this is just a good thing, and it is not an impediment to you.
“A school is significant to the history of the city," Flemmer said. "If something happens to it down the road, there’s documentation, a packet of what it was. The commission has zero interest in becoming involved in what you do with buildings in the future.”
Renovations to the Grand Forks County Courthouse, which is listed on the National Register, did not require a Section 106 review, Flemmer noted.
A longtime board member and past president, Eric Lunn said Grand Forks Central High School is the only local public school building listed on the National Register.
Board President Bill Palmiscino said that when windows at that school had to be replaced: “We needed specialized windows that had to match the windows in place. We couldn’t go with triple-glaze because of the size of the windows.
“At that time, we had an unlimited mill levy. We didn’t have $70 million in deferred maintenance staring us in the face," he said.
Flemmer said Central High School is located within the boundaries of a special historic downtown district.
Impact on planning
School Board member Jacqueline Hoffarth summarized the public perspective, noting the potential impact on the district’s facilities planning.
“Some people are concerned that this process is going to take away power from the school district,” Hoffarth said. “Others are saying, ‘Wow, this is going to save our (neighborhood) schools.’ Both sides are wrong.”
Hoffarth cited the process of restoring the Riverside Swimming Pool, a place of “historical significance,” years ago.
“The only thing was we needed to slightly change the handicap access. It was a lot of noise for nothing.”
The Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission received a grant from the state to hire Susan Caraher, of Grand Forks, to draft the nomination, which would be reviewed by the State Historic Preservation Commission. If approved, it would go to the federal Department of the Interior.
Palmiscino asked Flemmer to provide more information on the commission’s scope of work and schedule, relative to the nomination, for the school board’s consideration at its June 10 meeting.