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Studying schools: Residents, leaders face several options for future of Grand Forks schools

Students at Valley Middle School transistion between classes on a recent morning. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Grand Forks residents will have a chance Monday to look at scenarios that have emerged from the school district's facilities master assessment and weigh in on what direction the School Board should take in planning for the future.

At a community forum, set for 7 p.m. at South Middle School, the public is invited to view a presentation by JLG Architects that outlines its findings based on an in-depth assessment of the district's 19 buildings. Informational booklets will be distributed.

A series of scenarios, outlining five different avenues of action and the consequences of each, will be explained.

Three scenarios involve consolidation of the city's smallest elementary schools, West, Wilder, Winship, and Lewis and Clark. One calls for a new elementary school, one for a new middle school, and another for expanding and renovating Ben Franklin and Viking elementary schools.

Maintaining the status quo is among the scenarios.

School Board President Doug Carpenter has emphasized that development of the facilities master plan is the first step in a process that will take time and will require a lot of input from the public.

The board is aiming to develop a plan that would guide decision-making for five-, 10- and 15-year increments.

Reacting to parents who have questioned the pace of the process, Carpenter said there is "no intent" to make any decisions on this matter before School Board elections in June or a new superintendent comes on board in July.

"The process will take a long time because everybody needs to buy into this," he said. "Ultimately, it is going to cost money. No matter what scenario you have, we are going to spend money over the few years that we may not have today. Everybody will have to be on board to make it work."

Comprehensive study

Carpenter and Superintendent Larry Nybladh have described JLG's facilities assessment as far more comprehensive than any such study to date.

"For the first time in the history of our school district, we have a comprehensive assessment of our facilities," Nybladh said.

In its work to physically assess schools, JLG hired "a variety of experts, including building architects, electrical and mechanical engineers, and other experts in roof systems, as well as an educational design consultant" to analyze each structure, he said.

"They looked at blueprints, went into tunnels and onto roofs. They met with buildings and grounds staff," he said, with the goal of creating "a baseline assessment, so we're not just guessing and reacting to emergencies, but we can plan and have a scheduled approach to upgrading or replacing facilities."

The facilities assessment "is a gift to the future," Nybladh said.

Major system failures at two schools in recent years underscore his point.

In summer 2016, replacing the heat pump supply tower at Red River High School cost the district nearly $400,000.

In April last year, a failed boiler heating system at Winship Elementary School could not be repaired and had to be replaced at a cost of about $600,000.

The timing of both incidents was fortunate, Carpenter said.

"We were very lucky these things happened when they did," he said. "If they had occurred in the winter, we would've had to find another place to educate the kids."

Some equipment, especially in older buildings, has reached or is approaching the end of its functional lifespan, officials have noted.

Build new? Convert?

Members of the School Board's Facilities Committee have discussed the option of building a new middle school and converting Valley Middle School to an elementary school, which would absorb students from West, Wilder, Winship—"W schools"—and Lewis and Clark elementary school.

Committee members have also discussed building a new, 750-student elementary school on a 15-acre or larger site—and, again, consolidating the three W and Lewis and Clark schools.

The new structure would resemble Discovery Elementary School in size and design. Built on the city's south end to accommodate more than 700 students at a cost of $15.5 million, Discovery, opened as Grand Forks' newest school in fall 2015. First-day enrollment hit 366.

Another scenario calls for expanding and renovating Ben Franklin and Viking elementary schools—a plan which also would involve consolidation of the W and Lewis and Clark schools.

According to industry standards, Grand Forks elementary schools provide more square footage per student than is recommended. The standard is 130 per student. Grand Forks is at 242 per student, a situation educational leaders say produces operational inefficiency.

"Operational inefficiency means less money for things that more directly impact provision of education, less money for attracting and retaining quality staff," Nybladh said.

The school district's total enrollment for the 2017-18 school year is 7,470. It is projected to rise to 7,554 in the 2021-22 school year.

Feedback

At Monday's forum, during a reception after the presentation, residents will have the opportunity to talk individually with School Board members, school administrators and JLG employees who have been involved in the facilities assessment and master plan.

School Board members hope to find out what residents think are priorities when it comes to the community's schools—things like "walkability" to schools, operational efficiency, and access to the same or similar educational programming no matter which school a student attends.

That input will be gathered in a survey people can complete at Monday's public forum. Those who cannot attend the forum may go online to view the JLG presentation and complete the survey until Jan. 29.

The school district is required by state law to conduct this type of public forum once every two years. The School Board decided to make the facilities master plan the focus of the forum as a means of informing and gaining feedback from the public, Carpenter said.

Some board members have said that Monday's forum is likely to be the first in a series of public meetings intended to gather input on the future of Grand Forks' public schools. Details of those meetings have not been finalized.

If you go:

Grand Forks Public Schools

Public Forum 2018

7 p.m. Monday

South Middle School Cafetorium

1999 47th Ave. S.

A regular meeting of the Grand Forks School Board begins at 6 p.m.

Here are brief descriptions of scenarios that will be presented at Monday's public forum:

Scenario 1: Do nothing

No regular investment plan. An approach that can lead to more expensive emergency projects.

Scenario 2: Proactive investment in existing facilities

Implement a planned investment schedule over the next 15 years, with updates every five years to make necessary adjustments. Address top priorities and deficiencies first.

Scenario 3: New middle school

Convert Valley Middle School to a 750-student elementary school. Consolidate West, Wilder, Winship and Lewis and Clark elementary schools.

Scenario 4: New elementary school

Build new 750-student elementary school, similar to Discovery Elementary in size and configuration, on a 15-acre site. Consolidate West, Wilder, Winship, and Lewis and Clark elementary schools.

Scenario 5: Renovate and expand existing elementary schools

Renovate and expand Ben Franklin and Viking elementary schools and consolidate West, Wilder, Winship and Lewis and Clark elementary schools.

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