Remember six months ago — or was it a century ago? — when Grand Forks school leaders’ biggest problem was building maintenance?
It’s overshadowed now amid a pandemic, but the question of how to handle the district’s deferred maintenance looms large. District leaders are still grappling with a price tag running to roughly $77 million, a number that’s only gotten uglier as the coronavirus wreaks havoc on the economy — surely a headwind for School Board leaders as they’re expected to ask the public to bless a plan for funding.
It’s still not clear what that plan would look like, or how it would shift property taxes or generate debt. But in a recent interview, Superintendent Terry Brenner said it’s possible the school could still proceed with plans for a local referendum on funding deferred maintenance as soon as the middle of next year.
“I don’t think we’re going to kick that can down the road, because the facilities can has been kicked down the road for too many years,” Brenner said. “The referendum, we’re still looking at spring, summer of 2021 — whether the board will want to shift that or not remains to be seen. We know we’re living in different economic times. But we wouldn’t want to slide that scale too far back.”
Brenner added, though, that the district’s group studying facility needs met as recently as July 23, and began facility tours on Thursday, Aug. 6. The work to figure out a solution, in other words, continues apace.
But to pursue a referendum now means asking for public support at one of the worst possible times, as the local economy is battered by the effects of the coronavirus. Why can’t the district just put a pin in this and wait until later?
School Board member Chris Douthit said he would invite anyone still wondering to head to one of the top floors at Valley Middle School, where temperatures can fly past 90 degrees on a warm day. It’s that kind of infrastructure problem — and not just in air circulation — over and over around the district.
“I think, you know, if you wait a year, for example, the needs are going to remain present or are going to get worse,” he said. He acknowledged, though, the pandemic-driven economic pain that’s either still coming or has already arrived. “If we’re going to go forward with whatever this looks like, we’re going to have to do it in a very understanding manner with our community, and say 'listen, this isn’t a want. This is a need that we must fulfill.'”
There remain large questions about how the coronavirus will affect not just the economy, though, but the state’s ability to provide funding (it will have to grapple with severe revenue shortfalls) and the public’s willingness to send students to class (though this is likely tempered by the district’s digital instruction for anyone who wants it).
“Boy, you talk about a perfect storm of events,” Douthit said. “(But) we still have to do what’s best for our students and our families and the community.”
Cynthia Shabb, another board member, said coronavirus makes it hard to pin down precisely what the timeline for the referendum, and thus a funding solution, would be. The facilities task force Brenner discussed still has work through September, then reports back to the School Board, which will then start planning for the district’s infrastructural future. That’s happening well behind schedule, and the delay is directly linked to the coronavirus.
But Shabb added that COVID is also raising more issues for the district’s infrastructure — like for ventilation and air quality — besides what Grand Forks buildings already need.
“We’ve heard and continued to hear that a heavy rain and a school will get wet and damp,” Shabb said. “It’s a concern, because parents need to make sure that the schools where kids are going to school are safe.”