On June 22, Grand Forks voters will head to the polls, weighing in on a referendum brought by Grand Forks Public Schools. It’s a big day for the district — one that will decide the fate of multiple school buildings and millions of dollars in revenue.
Voters will decide on two separate questions. One asks for the approval of a 10-mill increase in property taxes, which school leaders say is a roughly $3.75 increase per month for every $100,000 of home value. That means it would boost taxes on a $250,000 home by $112.50 each year.
For the purposes of school taxing, a mill is a fraction of taxable property value and is used to calculate property taxes.
School leaders say that increase is necessary to tackle big deferred maintenance projects that would otherwise crowd out parts of the budget that serve students.
The other question is more complex. School leaders are asking for voters’ permission to issue $86 million in bonds. That money would be used to build a new K-8 school that would replace Valley Middle School and West, Winship and Wilder elementary schools. It would also pay for a range of new projects, such as a new centralized district kitchen and district-wide special education and infrastructure improvements.
Paying off that sum, school leaders say, would cost an additional tax of $8.23 per month for every $100,000 of home value. That’s about $246.90 annually for a $250,000 home. Scott Berge, the district's business manager, said that will end when the bonds are paid off — likely in 20 years.
But the school’s campaign has faced sharp criticism from groups skeptical that the district needs so many big changes. The group leading the effort against the effort says the plan — especially the bonding and new school proposal — are far too expensive, ripping community hubs out of small neighborhoods around downtown at far too steep a cost to taxpayers.
"Let's look at it this way,” said Scott Lindgren, treasurer for Citizens for Reasonable School Funding, the community group leading opposition to the district’s big ask for the $86 million bonding measure. “If you've got a Chevy and you've got a crack in the window and some of the upholstery is worn, do you go buy a BMW? Really?"
READ MORE COVERAGE
Against the $86 million bonding plan
One of critics’ biggest worries is that plans for a new K-8 school represent a seismic shift for nearby neighborhoods. Winship and Wilder schools help anchor those areas, helping keep them vibrant, walkable communities. What happens when those schools go away?
“I don’t believe Grand Forks, coming off the heels of COVID, can necessarily afford this at this time,” Mark Rustad, an outspoken opponent of the referendum and member of the citizens’ group, told the Herald earlier this month. “I think the timing is terrible and the project is stupid. You’re taking schools away from neighborhoods where they already exist and people who will be negatively impacted will be asked to pay for it.”
But the other issue is the cost. According to school data, the new K-8 school campus will cost about $64 million. It’s a cost that Justin Berry, another critic with the citizens’ group, said dwarfs the numbers school document from 2019 — which only tallies about $9.1 million in “regular investments and other improvements” for those three facilities, (a district official said this report is outdated, and did not cover the full scope of needed repairs as comprehensively as more recent numbers).
Berry concedes that there are pressing maintenance needs at some local schools. But he’s confused at the way the district studied and organized for the referendum. He points out that the “facility task group” — a key district committee that helped put together the referendum — toured 10 schools, but didn’t visit Wilder or Winship Elementary.
“I wouldn't even buy a pair of pants before trying them on, let alone shut down two neighborhood schools that would negatively impact hundreds of children and a lot of families,” he said.
Ultimately, Berry said, he thinks the district can do better. The cost is too high, and the benefits too low. The savings in maintenance, and in ongoing costs, are too small compared to tens of millions of dollars spent on a new building. The opponents wonder: why not reject the bonding proposal and make the district come up with a better plan?
“I don’t think it makes sense fiscally,” Berry said.
Critics also are skeptical of the school district’s use of SitelogIQ, the Minneapolis-based consulting firm that helped study and organize the referendum. That group won a contract from the school district in late 2019, worth about $29,500, to help weigh the district’s needs against Grand Forks’ appetite for supporting the school district.
But earlier this year, SitelogIQ drew a wave of criticism when it held a public meeting to organize a “Vote Yes'' committee for the referendum. Critics were worried that the school district, employing the consultant, was crossing into dangerous territory. School leaders are allowed to provide information about the referendum, but they’re not allowed to spend school resources on a political campaign. So was that meeting ethical? And why would SitelogIQ do that?
Top administrators denied knowledge of the meeting before it happened. And the Herald obtained documents this week that showed the local state’s attorney’s office, following a police investigation, found no wrongdoing by the district in the decision to contract with SitelogIQ. But critics have seen the episode as a sign the referendum process was tainted by a consultant angling for more business, even though district leaders say SitelogIQ won’t win a construction or architecture contract for the new school.
And district leaders defend the need for the new campus, which they say helps make a desperately needed replacement at Valley Middle School. Besides, the bonding proposal includes more projects — for a kitchen, for special education needs, disability access and more, School Board President Amber Flynn said.
“The other fixes touch every single one of our buildings,” she said.
And Berge, the district’s business manager, said Berry’s $9 million figure does not account for all the need the district currently sees — now and into the future — at the slate of schools it’s looking to replace. Some current classrooms only have one electrical outlet, he said; the fix for that isn’t just deferred maintenance.
“(It’s) having an operable building versus a building that meets modern learning,” he said.
Against mill increase
There is much less criticism of the other question in the referendum, which asks the public for a property tax hike to pay for building maintenance costs — “Question #2” on the ballot. Many leading opponents of the bonding question, like Berry and Lindgren, are actually in support of this item.
But not everyone is so sure.
Rustad, a local property owner and manager, said he’s wary of the changes, which he said could cost him thousands of dollars a month. And he’s skeptical of the district’s argument that it needs such large amounts of money to support its maintenance needs.
"That might be the case, if you're going to hire outside architectural firms that want to make everything the Taj Mahal," he said. "But that isn't logical. You wouldn't remove every drywall screw and piece of drywall and carpet in your house every year."
Pressed on his insights into the school system’s costs, Rustad said he has three children in the school system.
“Day in, day out, my job is to maintain and operate buildings. I know what stuff costs," he said.
Flynn responded that she trusts repeated studies that have been done on the district’s needs, which show high maintenance costs. And Berge said that the school district really does have serious, pressing maintenance needs — without counting any building depreciation.
“We’ve got boilers at Valley Middle School,” Berge said. “Some of that dates back to the early 1960s. They function for a great length of time, many, many years, but sometimes those systems fail.”
Voting is open at the Alerus Center on Tuesday, June 22 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Absentee ballots are available in advance of the election from The Grand Forks Public Schools main office, 2400 47th Ave. S. Residents can also call 746-2200 and ask Scott Berge for assistance.
Ballots also are available at the Grand Forks County Auditor’s Office, 151 S. 4th St., or by calling 780-8200.