The Grand Forks School Board on Monday, April 26, spent a fair amount of time discussing the possibility of delaying a referendum election planned for June 22, but ultimately opted to move forward and ask voters to approve the $86 million bond and 10-mill increase.
While there seems to be broad public support for the 10-mill levy increase for the school district's building fund, there’s confusion about how the $86 million would be used, several board members said.
“There are a lot of misconceptions, a huge learning curve, and people need to be brought up to speed,” said Jacqueline Hassert. “The problem is hugely complicated, but the solution is simple: we need more money. I’d be in favor of waiting a while if that’s what people want to do.”
“We are concerned about the timeline,” said Superintendent Terry Brenner, noting that military ballots can be accepted May 7.
“There are questions about ESSER funds,” Brenner said. “There’s a lack of clarification on how the funds can be used.” ESSER stands for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief.
He was also unsure, he said, “about whether the superintendent should be out there giving facts” about the referendum.
Board member Bill Palmiscno was not in favor of delaying the referendum.
“We need an answer from the general public,” he said. “If it fails, we may have to pare it down. We need to get out as much information as we can and see what the answer is. We don’t know what the public will say.”
Board member Doug Carpenter said, “I’m of the opinion we need to move forward. We may get an answer we don’t like, or we may get one we do and one we don’t, but at least we’ll have input from the community.”
In an update on the work of the Bond Program Planning Group, Carpenter said members are working on details of construction projects that would be funded by a successful referendum, including $70.5 million to build a new K-8 school on the city’s north side and a new district central kitchen, currently at Valley Middle School, as an addition to the Mark Sanford Education Center on the south side.
The remaining $15.5 million would be used for various building projects and upgrades for safety, security and special education throughout the district.
A document outlining the final list of projects must be submitted to the state’s Department of Public Instruction in May, Carpenter said, noting that the committee intends to bring the list of priority projects for the School Board’s consideration May 10.
The list will not include internal air quality and HVAC projects because “we anticipate they will be covered by ESSER funds,” Carpenter said.
Board member Chris Douthit, who is serving on the board’s K-8 Campus Predesign Committee, provided an update on the committee’s work after its three weekly meetings.
The group is developing “common themes and concepts” for the school – including those related to student pick-up and drop-off, gymnasiums and open spaces within the building – that can be used by the architectural firm that is eventually hired to design the structure.
Douthit said the committee is focused on “making sure it fits in with the (University) park and the houses in the community” and addressing parents’ concerns that elementary and middle school students are kept separate.
The committee will hold a Zoom meeting and bring a report, with visuals, to the School Board at its next regular meeting, May 10.
The committee has met for the past three Tuesdays to determine the general features and function of the proposed school. The new school would combine Valley Middle School and West, Wilder and Winship elementary schools into a single K-8 campus on the site Valley currently occupies.
In other action, the board:
Approved unanimously the appointment of Kelli Tannahill as the next principal at J. Nelson Kelly Elementary School. Tannahill, who has served as principal at Lewis and Clark Elementary School for six years, was among four internal candidates interviewed for the position, Brenner said. He recommended she be employed at a salary of $117,004, effective July 1.
Approved the appointment of Brenda Lewis as assistant superintendent of elementary education for Grand Forks Public Schools. Lewis, director of pre-K-12 curriculum for Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, was among two internal and three external candidates interviewed for the position. Brenner recommended that she be employed at a salary of $159,000. Board member Cynthia Shabb cast the sole dissenting vote, noting the pressure that budget reduction measures will have on teachers in the district and that "the administration needs to feel the crunch."