The Grand Forks School Board is considering the possibility of closing West Elementary, and looking at the cost of operating other schools -- especially those which need a substantial investment for deferred maintenance -- in light of the school referendum in June.
Nearly $600,000 per year in staff salaries, benefits and utilities could be saved if West were to be closed, said Scott Berge, business manager for the school district.
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The savings would be realized through retirements, attrition and “positions being consolidated,” but current staff members would be transferred to other schools within the district if they so desired, Berge said.
West students could be absorbed into other schools “without a big impact on other schools,” he said. “The students could be moved to other buildings without adding staff.”
One grade level at West only has 12 students, Berge said.
All of West’s students could be transferred to nearby schools without having to create another section at the receiving school, he said.
“The school board will discuss (but not make a decision on) the future of West Elementary School at their Dec. 9, 2019 meeting,” Superintendent Terry Brenner said in an email to the Herald.
“A decision, or actionable item, would be placed on the Jan. 6, 2020, agenda if the school board chooses to move in a direction of closing West Elementary School,” Brenner said.
Of the 89 students who attend West, 54 live in the school’s boundary area, said Associate Superintendent Jody Thompson.
Thirty-three students live in other Grand Forks schools’ boundary areas and two are open-enrolled from the Thompson, N.D., School District, Thompson said.
“West has about $1.3 million in salaries tied to it,” Berge said.
He estimates that about $426,000 in salaries, $124,000 in benefits and $40,000 in utilities could be saved if West is closed.
The oldest school building in the district, West Elementary, constructed in 1949, is in need of about $2.4 million in deferred maintenance, said Bill Palmiscno, board president. “It doesn’t make sense to put more money into West.”
As the district and school board “go through the process of closing a school, the staff at West is on pins and needles,” Brenner said.
If the school is to be closed, its teachers, staff members and families should be informed as soon as possible, Palmiscno said.
“We need to give them notice as soon as we can -- it makes more sense to me," he said.
Melissa Bucchop, vice president of the Grand Forks Education Association, said teachers would be concerned about whether they will “get a say on what their new job would be.
“It could be another grade level -- if you’re going from fourth grade to first grade, that (change) is huge,” she said.
School board member Shannon Mikula asked what consideration would be given to students who will need transportation to attend a new school, noting that with school closure “there’s savings, but we’re shifting the cost to the community member.”
Other aging schools under scrutiny, due to deferred maintenance costs, include Valley Middle School and Ben Franklin Elementary School, said Chris Arnold, director of buildings and grounds for the Grand Forks School District.
At another aging school, Winship Elementary, a new HVAC system was installed about two years ago at a cost of nearly $1 million, Arnold said.
“And Wilder is border-line. Ben Franklin is already having steam leaks,” he said. “This is a reactionary plan now. (Deferred maintenance issues) are driving the ship now.”
Actions could be taken before the referendum in June to help pave the way for a favorable voter reaction, some school district administrators and board members said.
In the months leading to the referendum, Brenner said, members of the public “may ask, what did you do to tighten your wallet?”