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Grand Forks Schools begins work to form facilities plan task force

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A Grand Forks Public Schools committee tasked with forming a group to help guide leaders in finalizing a long-term master facilities plan has dropped the phrase "21st century learning" and will focus on innovation, relevance and community input.

It's a move a representative of a group hoping to protect neighborhood schools said was a step in the right direction.

"I think the current direction is the right one, and I am very encouraged by what's happening so far," said Whitney Berry of the Grand Forks Neighborhood Schools Alliance.

The facilities committee took its first step Wednesday to create a group of district leaders, teachers, students, staff and parents to help gather information and provide a final report on what stakeholders want to see in the master plan. It appointed board members Shannon Mikula and Chris Douthit to co-chair the pre-kindergarten through 12th grade education model committee, which will define learning in the district.

Others—internal and external stakeholders—will be appointed to the task force committee in the near future. The district will determine a process in the upcoming days to choose members to serve on that committee, said Superintendent Terry Brenner.

Berry said she wants to be on the committee that looks at community involvement and neighborhood impact.

Timeline of the plan

It was the first time the facilities committee has met since May 23, but the group hasn't talked about the long-term facilities plan since Feb. 28. That's when former Superintendent Larry Nybladh presented a Feb. 22 memorandum suggesting the School Board form a task force to "continue the study and analysis of various issues associated with further refinement and successful implementation" of the master plan.

The suggestion to form a task force came after taxpayers criticized scenarios presented to the district by JLG Architects. Earlier this year, the Grand Forks firm presented several options that could fit into the district's facilities plan, including ones that would involve building a new school while consolidating Lewis and Clark, Winship, West and Wilder elementary schools.

Work began on the master plan in 2017, and there was a timeline that slated the plan's finalization this month. The tentative approval timeline was pushed back after parents expressed concerns this year about the scenarios suggesting the consolidation of some neighborhood elementary schools. Some feared elementary schools would be closed.

School leaders said at the time the scenarios were not definite plans but what-if scenarios, meaning other suggestions on how to move forward with the facilities plan could arise. They also said the district did not have intentions to close schools.

Residents also didn't understand what "21st century education" meant, board member Cynthia Shabb said. The term was used in promoting the master plan proposal.

Board members held a meeting in January to explain the term and scenarios, but Mikula, who was not on the board at the time, said district leaders couldn't give her a definition for "21st century learning." Some taxpayers took offense to the term, Shabb said.

Berry said parents felt the original plan and how it was presented was restrictive and short-sided.

"It was off-putting to a lot people, especially in those north-end schools that they were targeting those for closure and reconfiguration," she said. "I'm very happy that the board is taking a broader approach to it, a more inclusive approach."

'Real people'

The facilities committee decided to drop the term and replace it with innovation and relevance. Douthit noted almost a fifth of the century is gone. Others said the state is looking into innovative learning.

"(Students) want a relevant experience that is transferable," Brenner said.

The committee suggested several other tweaks to Nybladh's task force proposal, including defining education for all students instead of just elementary students and determining how redrawing in-district boundaries plays a role in the master plan.

But Brenner agreed forming the task force was the way to move forward.

The district plans to host neighborhood meetings to gather input from residents, Brenner said.

Mikula said the conversation has to begin with the community, meaning teachers and parents should serve on the task force. Students and parents should have input, but teacher involvement should be heavily weighted because they are on the inside and know what they need for facilities, Mikula said.

Douthit said the district needs to form a relationship with taxpayers and listen to public input.

"If we don't have a relationship with this community, we are in deep water," he said.

The district needs to look at all parts of the discussion on the master plan, including the human aspects and how the plan will impact families and neighborhoods, Berry said.

"I think they need remember the people aspect of this, that this affects real people, real kids," she said. "It's not just looking at numbers on a spreadsheet."

The task force also will include a facility options committee and a finance feasibility committee, but the facilities committee wants to make sure it defines education before forming those groups.

It's unclear when the master facilities plan will be approved, but a master plan draft has been made public.

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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