Candidates for the Grand Forks School Board acknowledged in a forum Wednesday, May 20, that difficult decisions lie ahead as the board grapples with fallout from the pandemic, budget shortfalls, ongoing and unanticipated infrastructure repairs and increased student mental health needs, among other challenges.

In light of recent community discussions about the future of West Elementary School, a 70-year-old low-enrollment school on the city’s north side, the question of preserving “neighborhood schools” came up, with some maintaining that even high-enrollment schools could be considered neighborhood schools, depending on the climate and culture.

The forum, sponsored by the Chamber Grand Forks/East Grand Forks, was moderated by Stacey Dahl, co-chairperson of the Chamber’s Governmental Affairs Committee. Each candidate presented an opening statement and then responded to a series of questions, followed by a closing statement.

All candidates for School Board, except Eric Lunn, participated in the forum, which was conducted using Zoom video-conferencing technology. Lunn, who has served on the board for 20 years, was unable to attend, Dahl said.

Lee Hensrud and incumbents Amber Flynn, Lunn, Jeff Manley and Cynthia Shabb are running for four, 4-year terms on the board. Christopher Douthit and Brad Raymond are running for a 2-year term. Linda Jenkins, who had filed as a candidate for the 2-year term, withdrew from the race last week, although her name still appears on the ballot.

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Student mental health issues seemed to be a pressing matter for several candidates.

“I hear time and time again from staff and administrators that now is a lot different than five years ago,” said Flynn, citing several steps the board has taken to provide coordination and resources to this area. Flynn, the board’s vice president, is seeking a second, four-year term.

“We need to provide an environment for kids to feel safe while they’re learning from us, a place to come if their home life isn’t safe,” she said.

Flynn and other incumbents said they want to continue the work that has been started by the board in recent years.

Several candidates cited what they perceive as some of the most urgent challenges.

“If COVID continues into the fall, we have to have resources and plans in place,” Shabb said.

“There are a lot of brick-and-mortar issues, and a lot of questions about infrastructure,” Douthit said. But the biggest challenge is “reaching people we need to the most, (so students) have a relationship with a caring adult and understanding as they go through their education -- not only teachers but cooks, custodians, it goes on and on. We need to meet them where they’re at.”

Hensrud and Raymond cited the need for the board and district administration to rebuild trust with the public.

“I want to be the voice for people, students and families who are impacted by (their) decisions,” said Raymond, whose wife is a teacher at West Elementary.

The district’s infrastructure needs and budget shortfalls “are glaring issues,” he said. “We need to be really scrutinizing where we’re spending money. If it’s approached in a clear and concise way, and it’s planned out, people will get on board with those decisions.”

Manley, who joined the board in September, said it is important that the board and district administration act with “accountability and transparency,” noting that “(Superintendent) Dr. Brenner has been more open than anyone in recent history.”

“The current administration is doing a better job of getting information out,” Manley said.

Board members represent a broad constituency, Hensrud said.

“Sometimes people feel they don’t have a seat at the table,” Hensrud said, noting that “as a board member, you’re filling a seat for a lot of students, first and foremost,” but also for teachers, residents and oneself.

It’s critical that the board “not be a rubber stamp,” he said, and that board members “need to keep what the community wants us to do in mind when we make those decisions.”

The Chamber's forum can be viewed below. It begins with the Grand Forks School Board candidates forum followed by the mayoral candidates.