The Grand Forks School District’s Facilities Task Force plans to recommend that the School Board consider a $90 million bond referendum in June and the closure or consolidation of several schools over the next five to 15 years.
The task force held its final meeting via Zoom the evening of Thursday, Dec. 3, after eight months of work that included 23 meetings and on-site visits to about a dozen schools.
Recommendations include the closure of Valley Middle School and the consolidation of West, Wilder and Winship elementary schools, to be replaced by two separate buildings or possibly two connected buildings, serving elementary and middle school students, on the city’s north end.
The task force recommends replacing Valley Middle and West Elementary because renovation of those schools is considered no longer viable.
At least one task force member expressed concern about school consolidation. Mike Jennings noted in the chat box during Thursday's online meeting, "I think you're going to get a lot of pushback on consolidating the three 'W' schools."
In the city’s south end, recommendations include the closure of Viking Elementary School and consolidating it into a remodeled and expanded Kelly Elementary School, and the closure of Lewis and Clark Elementary and consolidating it into a remodeled and expanded Ben Franklin Elementary School.
The $90 million bond referendum would include $70.5 million for consolidation of Valley and the three “W” schools, $4.8 million for the Ben Franklin project, $4.7 million for the Kelly project, $4 million for renovation at Schroeder Middle School and $6 million for other facility priorities.
The recommendation to consolidate several smaller schools is required to provide equitable facilities, programs and opportunity for students through the district, the task force recommendation document states. Further, this provides significant operational savings to the district in addressing budget issues, it states.
The district is operating with a deficit budget that has grown to more than $5 million.
These physical plant changes would be phased in, using a master facilities plan that prioritizes the projects according to short-, mid- and long-term status and covers five-year increments over the next 15 years.
The changes would allow the district to gain operational savings that should be used to increase the district’s fund balance until it is rebuilt to an appropriate level, 15 to 20% of the operating budget, the recommendation states.
The task force plans to advise the school board to consider choosing one of two options linked to the $90 million bond referendum. One is a five-mill increase in the district’s building fund. The other is a staggered approach, calling for an increase of two mills in each of five years to be added to the building fund. The fund is currently set at 10 mills; state law permits 20 mills.
In an electronic poll by consultant Tom Weber of SitelogIC at the Task Force’s final meeting, held via video-conferencing Thursday, members were split in a survey: 50% favored the first approach, while 39% preferred the second, staggered approach.
The school district is operating with the lowest level of mills for its building fund among the state’s five largest school districts, according to Scott Berge, the district’s business manager.
It is expected that the Grand Forks School Board will hear the recommendations, as well as input from some task force members, at a Dec. 17 meeting. That meeting will be held via Zoom video-conferencing.
Beginning in January, the board will start holding special work sessions to consider the recommendations of the task force. The board should make a final decision on ballot language in March to prepare for a possible referendum in June, Weber said.