School consolidation should be considered part of the solution to the school district’s financial woes, all Grand Forks School Board members agreed during a special work session Thursday evening, Jan. 21.
The board is reviewing the recommendations of the district's Facilities Task Force, which held 23 meetings over the course of nine months last year to study the challenges facing the district and come up with a plan to address deferred maintenance and put the district back on healthier financial footing.
Board members, however, did not express uniform agreement on other aspects of the task force’s report, such as the amount of additional mills for the building fund and the bonding package to present to voters in a possible referendum this June.
Attending Thursday’s work session were President Amber Flynn, Eric Lunn, Jeff Manley, Cynthia Shabb, Chris Douthit and Bill Palmiscno. Absent were Shannon Mikula, Jacqueline Hoffarth and Doug Carpenter.
Tom Weber, senior business consultant with SitelogIQ, the firm hired by the board to guide pre-referendum planning, is leading the group’s discussion as it works to craft a request that will be acceptable to voters.
The task force has recommended the district seek approval for a $90 million bonding plan to allow for consolidation of several schools and address urgent infrastructure needs. Typically, bonds are paid back over a 20-year period, Weber said, and with interest rates “being very low right now, it’s a fantastic time to borrow money if you need to borrow money.”
The board is also weighing how to approach a mill levy increase.
Scott Berge, the district’s business manager, said revenue from the 10 mills the district currently receives for the building fund “is being used to pay down the debt.” Construction projects are being paid from the district’s general fund instead.
“Without having a reasonable building fund, you can’t take care of smaller projects,” Berge said, and “if you don’t take care of those smaller projects, the true cost climbs significantly.”
The district is limited by law to 20 mills.
The district’s deficit spending situation “is a direct result of not having 20 mills” in the building fund, Berge said.
The community has not been asked to vote on a referendum “in quite some time,” Flynn said. “Is 10 (mills) too big, because the community is not used to it?”
Palmiscno said he believed a 10-mill increase is too much to ask of voters.
However, Lunn said, “We need 20 mills, but how do we get there?” The options are 2 mills each year for five years or two, five-mill increases, he said. “Do we do it slower or quicker?”
An additional 10 mills would result in a $9.38 monthly increase in property taxes on a home assessed at $250,000.
Board members considered what level, up to $50 per month, considering the combined impact of a tax increase related to the building fund and bonding, would be acceptable to voters. They did not settle on a figure, but plan to continue discussion on the matter.
Also, the district is planning to conduct a survey to gather community input.
This week’s meeting was the School Board’s second special work session on this topic; the first was Jan. 7, with an initial description of the Facilities Task Force recommendations. The next workshop is set for Feb. 8 and a fourth is expected to be scheduled later in February, Weber said.