During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the quickest ways the federal government sent help was with its checkbook. Families got stimulus money. Businesses got loans. And states and schools were sent vast sums to help build the new, mid-pandemic world of distance learning and zoom classrooms and keep real-world schools safe.
It’s that last bit that’s become a sticking point in Grand Forks.
Grand Forks is less than two weeks from a June 22 referendum, when the public will decide two major questions. One will increase local taxes to help pay for deferred maintenance at numerous school buildings, giving officials a line of revenue they say is desperately needed to keep pace with repairs.
Another question seeks to green-light the sale of $86 million in revenue bonds, which will help build a new K-8 school, a new district central kitchen and back a list of other improvement projects throughout Grand Forks Public Schools. This separate question in the referendum proposes a second hike in property taxes to fund the bonds’ repayment.
And as Grand Forks heads to the polls, that’s raised questions about the local school district’s corner of federal assistance. Grand Forks looks set to win access to $28.8 million in federal aid, coming under the “Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief” program — or “ESSER” for short.
That funding is limited to a finite list of uses, from boosting distance learning to better ventilation. But critics have wondered how that rush of available cash could offset the need to hike taxes or embark on big spending.
Scott Lindgren, an opponent of the district’s bonding plan, wondered why the school needs the $86 million sum when it’s already asking for extra maintenance funding, in addition to its access to millions of dollars in government aid.
“I would take the ESSER funds you can use for HVAC and energy efficient windows, or whatever it would be, and take the extra mills and … get some priorities identified and then fix the priorities,” he said.
The district argues that the ESSER money is only trickling out slowly — and even then, it’s not coming as one big check. It’s merely made available to reimburse qualified spending the school incurs, as chunks of that funding are made available by the state, which holds the purse strings.
It’s true that much more is widely expected to arrive. But even then, it only will be available for a certain range of uses. A state list of spending includes projects that boost air quality, transportation costs, assistance with pandemic budget pinches and the like.
The Herald previously reported on the effects that government school aid would have on the region; especially in less wealthy districts, government aid per student is substantial, boosting money available for summer school or for learning technology. It’s a significant asset for those communities — tens of thousands of dollars per student.
And when that tally goes beyond just ESSER funding — to dollars aimed at broadband access and more— the sums get even higher.
But in April, Grand Forks looked likely to receive nearly $4,000 per student in ESSER funding. It’s a meaningful sum, but it’s constrained funding that school leaders can only use to reimburse a finite list of improvements. And although that list is broad, it has its limits.
"Certainly, the money from the federal government is going to be helpful. But it's not, by any means, near a solution to our financial concerns," School Board member Doug Carpenter said in April, estimating the cost of the next decade of long-term maintenance at something like $150 million to $180 million.
"We're going to be able to do a number of infrastructure projects related to HVAC ... without using local tax dollars. That's beneficial — it saves local taxpayers in the long run,” he added. But he said that it’s no replacement for additional tax revenue.
Opponents of the school’s referendum drive still say the ESSER money is an important part of the conversation, though. And Lindgren makes a nuanced argument — he plans to vote to increase the building tax levy, making more money available for maintenance. But he won’t support the bonding measure for a new school, which looks to him like a waste.
“I think that this school district needs to demonstrate some responsibility on what they can do with the money — the taxpayers' money,” Lindgren said in a later interview, calling the $86 million sum “a bail-out of years of irresponsibility by not planning for future needs."
But district officials say all the money they’re asking for on June 22 is crucial. Amber Flynn, the School Board president, argued that the bonding plan in particular is important for the district’s future — with plans not only for a new school, but for upgrades throughout the district. And that new K-8 campus, she argued, would do a lot of good.
“Valley (Middle School) is one catastrophic failure away from being not operational,” she said.