At the first community meeting on the future of Grand Forks school facilities, parents and others voiced concerns about issues such as the deterioration of some buildings and the need to ensure that students receive an equitable educational experience no matter what school they attend.
Some said they worried that if, to save money, the district moves to larger class sizes or a “mega-school” that replaces a few smaller elementary schools, students will suffer academically and socially.
The meeting, held Thursday, Sept. 5, at Valley Middle School, was the first of five that are planned this month. Others are set for Tuesday, Sept. 10, at Discovery Elementary School; Sept. 16 at Grand Forks Central High School; Sept. 19 at Viking Elementary School; and Sept. 26 at Wilder Elementary School. All meetings will run from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Those who are unable to attend may provide input through “Thought Exchange,” a portal on the school district’s website which allows participants to see and react to others’ comments.
At the start of Thursday’s meeting, about 50 participants heard a detailed presentation by administrators and the school district’s demographer, Robert Schwarz, Kansas-based RSP Associates.
Administrators described the issues -- especially financial and deferred maintenance -- facing the district. Schwarz outlined such things as the functional capacity and the cost of operating each of the district’s buildings, as well as enrollment and population trends.
The district’s deferred maintenance costs, estimated at $77 million, are increasing by 10 percent to 15 percent every year, said Scott Berge, the district’s business manager
The district’s budget was hampered by the state legislature’s decision to freeze per-pupil payments to schools two years ago, Berge said. “And maintenance issues are coming to the fore.”
Outlining some of the district’s most pressing repair and replacement needs, Chris Arnold, director of buildings and grounds, said: “Emergency projects are driving the bus. We just found out that an elevator shaft at Red River (high school) is failing and needs replacement.
“We’re not in the driver’s seat, and that’s a bad thing,” he said.
Some residents believe that with the post-Flood of ‘97 influx of money for the improvements that “we wouldn’t have to worry about facilities for the next 50 years,” Arnold said. “That’s not really true.”
The lack of proper air exchange at Valley Middle School, for example, pushes temperatures to “100 degrees in the A wing on the second floor; it’s stifling,” he said. “We’re relying on ‘60s technology. Our facilities are in horrendous shape. I can’t sugarcoat it.”
After the presentation, participants were split into small groups facilitated by school staff and shared their comments, viewpoints and suggestions.
Barb Gangelhoff said her daughter attended Wilder Elementary at a time, before relocatable classrooms were brought in, when her class sizes ranged from 25 and higher, and “she did well.”
However, “a great big school for elementary (kids), that’s something I don’t want to see,” Gangelhoff said.
Another parent, Dean Kuhns, said that he’s been impressed with schools his son attended, where “teachers and principals knew almost all the kids."
“There’s more of a community presence in smaller schools. But I think there’s a happy middle somewhere," he said.
Meghan Scott, who teaches sixth-grade math classes at Valley Middle School, said: “When you get up to 29 kids in class, you have about one-and-a-half minutes with each student. In smaller classes, there’s more opportunity to form a relationship with students.”
Laura Frisch, whose children attended Phoenix Elementary, said: “I appreciate smaller class sizes. It’s like a second family for them.”
Phoenix had two sections per grade and “the two principals in the time my kids were there, knew the names of the students. I wonder if, at Discovery, does the principal know the names of every kid?”
“I’m kind of resistant to the idea of a larger school.”
Regarding facilities, Frisch said it made her “a little sad” that some schools look “run down,” especially those on the town’s north side, like Winship Elementary. “That school looks rough,” she said.
For students trying to learn in less-than-optimal conditions, “it doesn’t feel like they’re as valued.”
“There should be more equity between schools on the north end and the south end,” Frisch said. “I’d like to see a new school on the north end to bring some equity for kids on this end of town.”
Kuhns questioned the idea that he said he’s heard about turning Valley Middle School into a multi-section elementary school.
“If it’s not suitable for middle school, how is it more suitable for elementary school?” he said.
Laura Frisch added: “Maybe it’s not a building worth saving.”
Her husband, David Frisch, said he would be willing to pay more to fund school improvements, “as long as it’s not a big jump.”
He stressed the need for better communication and problem-solving among local governmental entities.
“The city and school district need to get together more often,” he said. “Get them and the park board altogether in the same room.”
A joint meeting, probably the first ever, of the city council and school board was planned and is expected to be held next month.
Berge alluded to the possibility of a referendum, which may come before voters next June.
“There’s nothing we can do without a taxpayer vote,” he said. “(With these community meetings) we’re laying out where we’re at, where we want to go, and how do we pay for that?”