Members of the Grand Forks School District’s Facilities Task Force on Thursday received an overview of the work they have before them in the coming six months.

The gathering was the new group’s first meeting.

Consultants with SitelogIQ, the firm hired by the Grand Forks School Board, outlined the process the group will use to develop recommendations for the board’s consideration as it prepares for a districtwide referendum.

“This is your process,” said Tom Weber, senior business consultant, encouraging his listeners to think of themselves as “a conduit with your community.”

Part of their role will be to learn about the district’s facilities and financial situation, and to share information with people outside the group. In that sharing, they are asked to listen to others’ opinions and perspectives and to bring those ideas back to the group for discussion, Weber said.

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Feedback from the community will be valuable in pre-referendum planning, but also for other district planning purposes, Weber said.

“We’re all here for the same purpose – and that’s to make sure that the Grand Forks School District moves forward,” said Brian Grenell, a community engagement specialist with SitelogIQ.

Task force members had various reasons for applying to serve on the committee.

Jon Dorner, 66, whose five kids all have gone through Grand Forks schools, said, “I’ve always been interested in this type of thing, and I’m interested to watch how this process plays out. We live in the Valley (middle school) and West (elementary school) neighborhood, so this affects us more than some,” Dorner said.

Also, as the former, longtime owner of Northstar Insulation Inc. – he just sold the business last year – Dorner and his workers “have been in most of these buildings once or twice, some of them multiple times,” he said.

The youngest member of the panel, Camden Larsen, 17, a junior at Red River High School, said, “As the district is planning steps, the student voice is crucial to this process.”

Some task force members, like him, “are in the school buildings every day” and see facility problems firsthand, he said. “Others may only hear of the issues.”

Another member, Marisa Sorenson, 25, director of Habitat for Humanity, said, “I am not a parent, but I just wanted to get involved in the community.”

Broad view

The task force will be studying a wide range of topics, including demographics, modern learning environments, strategic planning, operational costs, educational programming, special education, school finances, tax impacts and equity in education.

They will tour some of the school buildings.

The consultants emphasized the importance of the process, aimed at generating a deeper understanding of the issues facing the school district, and cautioned against jumping to solutions too soon – although “great ideas we don’t want to lose track of” will be recorded and kept for later discussion, Weber said.

The community engagement process begins with “learning, exploring and understanding,” so committee members are all working from a common base of knowledge, Weber said. That’s followed by developing priorities and then coming up with options for the School Board’s consideration.

Prompting committee members to think about the needs of the entire district, not just an individual school, “is always a struggle,” Grenell said, but “eventually they get there.”

In the process, though, “they’ll get their voices heard too.”

The city “needs to have a good school system to make Grand Forks an inviting community,” said Jeff Barta, a partner at Achieve Fitness.

Achieving educational equity across the district is important, said John Stempinksi, “so you don’t have to choose a home to have your kid go to a certain school.”

Others want to explore how the city will or could be involved in school district planning.

The end result of the committee’s work “should include broad concepts that we need to build into the plan,” Weber said.

Finding an end goal

The final report that the task force sends to the School Board in the fall is expected to be used to determine the plan for the referendum. It must answer three questions, Weber said. “Does it make sense for the kids? Does it make sense fiscally? Does it make sense politically?”

If the answer is yes to all those questions, the referendum is likely to succeed, he said.

Weber said, “If (the referendum question) doesn’t resonate with the community from a political standpoint, it’s probably dead on arrival.”

Several committee members agreed, including Dorner, who said the needs of the community must be taken into account. “There needs to be community buy-in,” he said.

The task force will be assisted by the Facilities Core Planning Team, consisting of school district administrators who will provide information. Members are: Terry Brenner, superintendent; Jody Thompson, associate superintendent; Catherine Gillach, assistant superintendent; Scott Berge, business manager; Chris Arnold, buildings and grounds director; Amy Bartsch, chief academic officer; Tracy Jentz, coordinator of communications and community engagement; Kelli Tannahill, principal, Lewis and Clark Elementary School; Joel Schleicher, principal, South Middle School; and Jon Strandell, principal, Grand Forks Central High School. School Board members Amber Flynn and Doug Carpenter also are members.

They do not attend task force meetings, so conversations are not restricted, Brenner said.

The Facilities Task Force is planning to meet a dozen times through August. All meetings are open to the public; the next meeting begins at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 26, at the Mark Sanford Education Center, 2400 47th Ave. S.

Other meeting dates are April 9 and 23, May 14 and 28, June 11 and 25, July 9 and 23, Aug. 13 and 27, at various school buildings.