The Grand Forks School Board took its first in-depth look at recommendations of its Facilities Task Force on Thursday, Jan. 7, as it works to determine what level of tax increase, to support schools, will be palatable to Grand Forks citizens in a referendum.

At a special work session meeting, Tom Weber, senior business consultant for SitelogIC, outlined the facility and budget challenges the district is facing and explained the recommendations to address those challenges.

The group has recommended that the School Board plan for a bond referendum for $90 million to address immediate infrastructure needs and an increase of two mills in each of the next five years to address on-going maintenance.

That could be followed by another bond referendum in the amount of $64.4 million to address continued facility needs, according to task force recommendations.

Other school district administrators highlighted more pressing concerns.

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The district needs a facilities investment of $160 million to $185 million over the next 10 years to address deteriorating buildings and equipment, Chris Arnold, the district’s building and grounds director, told the board.

“This number could vary widely,” he said. “Right now, we’re driven by emergencies, and that’s really not where we want to be.”

For example, though some improvements have been made at Valley Middle School, including new windows and flooring, the electrical and HVAC system is worrisome, according to Arnold.

“We’re on the brink of failure with that system; we are very concerned about Valley, to keep that school functional and heated for this winter," he said.

The school district’s general fund balance has decreased from $20,164,000 as of June 2015 to $4.9 million in this school year, said Scott Berge, business manager for the school district. June of 2015 “was last time it was over $20 million,” said Berge, adding that a healthy fund balance would be a minimum of 15% of annual expenses, or about $17.25 million.

Expenses tied to major boiler equipment and other large-scale projects have gouged the building fund, especially beginning in 2019, Berge said.

Next steps

The largest infrastructure projects in the school district will be the focus of the next school board work session meeting, Jan. 21. Another work session meeting is set for Feb. 8 and a fourth meeting is planned for later in February; the date has not been set.

A discussion concerning school consolidations also will be on the agenda for the Jan. 21 meeting, Weber said.

The Facilities Task Force has recommended that three northside elementary schools -- Wilder, Winship and West -- and Valley Middle School be consolidated and replaced with a K-8 school on the Valley school site.

The task force also recommended closing Viking Elementary School and consolidating it into a remodeled and expanded Kelly Elementary School, and closing Lewis and Clark Elementary School and consolidating it into a remodeled and expanded Ben Franklin Elementary School.

Discussion at a later work session meeting of the school board will focus on what the increase in the school district’s mill levy will mean for the individual taxpayer, whether a home- or business-owner, Weber said.

The district’s financial situation has been years in the making, negatively impacted by “multiple years of flat per-pupil payments (from the state) on the revenue side,” and construction expenditures, in the form of large-scale projects, on the expense side, said Berge.

Unless the number of mills is increased from the current 10 mills, the district’s “building fund will be negative for the next 10 years,” Berge said.

The district is allowed to levy up to 20 mills for its building fund.

Community survey

As it moves forward in pre-referendum planning, the school board is also overseeing a community survey.

The survey, which will be conducted in the next few weeks, will be available electronically, and paper copies will be provided to those who need or prefer them, Weber said.

In response to a query from board member Chris Douthit about why such a survey is needed, based on SitelogIQ’s past experience with referendums, Weber said that the more opportunity the community has to be involved, the better.

Also, the more informed the community is, the more likely the referendum will be successful, Weber said.

The survey will gauge the public’s response to the scope and fiscal concepts that could be proposed to voters in a referendum. Survey results will be used by the board in its decision-making process, he said.

If school board members decide to move ahead with a referendum in June, they need to finalize the wording of the question or questions by late March or early April, to comply with the state statute that governs the election process, Weber said.