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Leaders optimistic about meeting challenges for Grand Forks schools

The Grand Forks School Board faces tough challenges as new members prepare to take their seats for the first time on July 16, leaders said.

But the recently elected board members are optimistic they can work together to improve morale, meet the needs of students, tackle finances and "sell the story of the district."

"I think we have a good team going with all of us," said Jackie Hoffarth, who was elected earlier this month to the board with Chris Douthit, Shannon Mikula, Bill Palmiscno and incumbent Doug Carpenter.

Hoffarth, Douthit and Mikula will be new faces to the School Board. Palmiscno previously served on the School Board for 23 years before taking a break in 2016. Carpenter has been on the board since 2014 and was the only member to run for re-election.

The five elected in the June primary represent more than half of the nine-member board. Along with new members, the district will have a new superintendent: Terry Brenner. He said he wants a renewed focus on student learning and communicating plans with the community to make sure everyone has a voice.

"I think that starts with listening," he said, adding he wants to go on a listening and learning tour throughout the community.

Palmiscno said he feels the board has a chance to "start with a new slate." He said he can help "sell the story" of Grand Forks Public Schools to the public.

"I think they have a great story," he said, adding a lot more goes into educating students than in past generations. "I don't think we sell that good enough."

Team Grand Forks

All of the candidates elected have different areas of expertise to offer the board, Mikula said. The board has an opportunity to work with other entities in Grand Forks, from City Council to the Park District, she said. She proposed meeting with other governing bodies in Grand Forks every few months to ensure they are working cohesively together.

The board also needs to engage residents constantly.

"I think it's a holistic view," Mikula said. "We're all in this together. This is one Grand Forks. We are Team Grand Forks as a whole, and not just Team School District or Team Park District."

Carpenter said the board has several goals it should accomplish: making sure Brenner gets off to a good start as the superintendent, come to a resolution on the district's master facilities plan and focus on Grand Forks Public Schools' financial situation.

The district will need to educate both the Legislature and residents on its finances and what is needed to continue to operate, he said. The budget is operating in the red, though the district has cash reserves to balance the budget, he said.

But the district will need to find additional sources of revenue in the coming years, either through the Legislature or increasing taxes, he said.

The district needs to focus on meeting the needs of all students, Douthit said, noting Grand Forks' diverse population. They need to receive the proper services and be served by caring people, whether it is by school staff or in the community, he said.

There are many stories in the district of staff helping children in times of crisis, he said, and he wants to make sure that work continues.

"That, in a nutshell, is truly why I ran—to serve students and ensure we take care of the families," he said. "We need to assure that when a student walks into a school—whether it is a school of 600 or a school of 200—they are going to have a caring teacher, they are going to have caring support staff. ... They should have a sense of belonging and comfort."

Board members also want to identify what is causing morale issues within the district, particularly among teachers and among taxpayers. Carpenter said he feels K-12 is under attack but wants to work to improving morale in the community.

"I think that is an issue we need to work on, and I think we will," he said.

The board will need to establish foundations for issues over the next four years, Mikula said, including reversing the trend of low morale. She saidthe board can do that with Brenner, who she called a communicator and relationship-builder.

Tough conversations need to happen, and people need an opportunity to express their concerns, Douthit said. Board members can disagree with each other and still be civil, he said.

He wants the board to reach out to and serve the community.

"I take that very seriously," he said. "It is critical to me, to serve others."

The public is generally supportive of education, but the district can do a better job at showing taxpayers just how much it does for students and the community, he said.

The board members appear collaborative, Hoffarth said, and she is optimistic about the district's future. She want the board to be data-driven and include input from the public.

Brenner said changes could be proposed: meeting for a retreat to set goals and norms for the year, switching to having two board meetings a month instead of one, reviewing policy and designating a board spokesperson.

"I don't want that to be taken out of context because any board member can have a conversation with anybody," he said of a board spokesperson. "There is not going to be this culture of controlling ... but rather a culture of open communication.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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