Voter approval of the June 22 school referendum will set the stage for the future of education in Grand Forks, bring facilities up to date, and provide a safe and equitable learning experience for all K-12 students – no matter where in the district the student lives, proponents say.

A yes vote “really illustrates that there’s support for the entire school district,” Superintendent Terry Brenner told the Herald editorial board.

Within the $86 million bond issue, “there is something for every campus, whether that’s safety and security, reconfiguring our front doors and office designs, moving offices to create safer sightlines to allow people in or not allow people in,” Brenner said.

“Classrooms really ought to have more than two outlets for the technological world we live in and our learning environments need spaces where our students can create and critically think and collaborate,” he said, noting the need for flexible spaces, unlike the traditional classroom, “that can be repurposed for anything from extra- to co-curriculars to academics – that just provides more opportunities.”

Safety and security, equity and learning spaces have been among the primary factors in much of the conversation about whether to renovate structures or build a new school, Brenner said.

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“We really want to set up the community for the next generation with how our schools will be,” he said. “We also know that we’re part of this economic engine that drives the community.”

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Tenuous situation

The district is in serious financial straits and trails other large school systems in the state in terms of available resources to repair infrastructure, district administrators say.

Brenner and other school leaders point to efficiencies, as well as the educational benefits, that they say would result from the consolidation of four north-end schools, which would net a minimum of $750,000 in annual operational cost savings.

The HVAC systems in school buildings, especially those built in the 1960s and earlier, are breaking down. The average age of the school campuses is 54 years, Brenner said. Equipment for heating, cooling and ventilation in some of these structures is so old that parts are no longer available to fix it.

“COVID has really illustrated the importance of air quality,” Brenner said. “So many of our campuses don’t have fresh returning air coming into the building.

“Valley Middle School is hanging on by a thread. There’s no other way to say it,” Brenner said. “If you could go down into the guts of our building ... the pipes are almost being remanufactured to hold steam together to get to classrooms so we’ve got heat in the winter. That’s one small catastrophe away from having no middle school for almost 600 kids.”

In recent years, the costs of several major infrastructure projects – including multiple boiler and other failures in school facilities – have depleted the district’s general fund considerably.

The last school referendum was held about 30 years ago, in the early 1990s, when voters approved a bond issue for the construction of an addition to Red River High School.

Two-question ballot

The school district is seeking voter approval on two questions. Voters can vote in favor or against both, or split their vote.

One is to increase the current mill levy from 10 to 20 mills, for the building fund – 20 is the maximum the state allows. The increase would generate about $2.5 million per year to pay for ongoing infrastructure repairs and upgrades.

The other seeks voter approval to issue up to $86 million in general obligation bonds. The funds that generated would be used to build a K-8 school ($64 million), a new central kitchen ($6.5 million) and address high-priority infrastructure and renovation issues at schools throughout the district ($15.5 million).

The central kitchen, currently located at Valley Middle School, would be moved to the Mark Sanford Education Center, 2400 47th Ave. S., providing semi-trailers and other delivery vehicles much easier access, proponents say.

If the $86 million referendum passes, the K-8 campus, which would accommodate about 1,000 students, would be constructed on Valley Middle School property and the current Valley building would be razed.

The K-8 campus would consolidate West (which already has closed), Wilder and Winship elementary schools into one building and the middle school in another, conjoined in the middle by shared support spaces, possibly for administration, kitchen, HVAC and electrical control rooms. The elementary and middle school areas would have separate entrances, gyms and lunchrooms, Brenner said. He stresses that it would essentially be two campuses built on one site.

The 10-mill increase for the building fund would allow the district to address pressing infrastructure issues and, potentially, accrue funds for catastrophic equipment failures that may arise, said Scott Berge, the district’s business manager.

The additional 10 mills would generate about $2.5 million per year for construction projects, Berge said. “Let’s just say we’ve got $80 million of deferred maintenance out there. If you’re only tackling that $2.5 million at a time, you never get over that hump.”

Approval of both questions would result in a monthly tax impact of about $12 per month – $8.23 for the bond issuance and $3.75 for the mill levy increase – per $100,000 of assessed property value, district officials have said.

A yes vote on both questions “would certainly be ideal,” Berge said. “It would allow for significant modernization and improvement at virtually all of our campuses.”

Full approval of the referendum “would, in effect, put us on more of a level playing field with the other large districts that have more mills for building purposes than we do,” Berge said.

The district levies the lowest number of mills for its building fund than any other large school district in the state, Berge said. For example, Minot – the next lowest, in terms of mills – levies 23.5 mills for its building fund, while other large districts levy 40 or more, he said.

“We’re just not in a position right now to be able to maintain. We’ve done a lot of things and our general fund balance, in the last five years, has really paid the price for that and that’s where we’re at right now.”

Those opposed to the referendum argue that the Facilities Task Force toured 10 schools last year, but did not tour Wilder and Winship elementary schools before deciding that those schools should be closed and consolidated into a new K-8 campus.

“Strategically, we were looking at schools to do comps with,” Brenner said, “and at the time when the Facilities Task Force was taking the school tours, they had no idea what the recommendation was going to be at the end.

“But certainly touring West and Valley I would say was fairly strategic,” Brenner said, since West was on the list of school closures in 2010 and 2017.

The 10 schools that were toured were toured “not with any preconceived outcome” he said, “but because West was on the list of closures and Valley was our one middle school that was really struggling with air quality, fresh air and no air conditioning, our oldest middle school – that was the reason for that tour.”

A portion of Schroeder Middle School is not air conditioned and South Middle School is fully air conditioned; few elementary schools are air conditioned, he said.

“We’re at a point where the day-to-day maintenance doesn’t work,” Berge said. “We’ll need replacements of major components of buildings. That’s where we’re at.”

Safe routes, public input

If the referendum is successful and K-8 campus is built on the Valley Middle School site, Brenner said, “some do feel disadvantaged that there’d be a longer mileage stretch to get to that site.”

The School Board has asked whether bus transportation would be an option, he said.

“The district did take a stance a couple of decades ago to get out of the busing industry, but that is certainly something that the board is interested in continuing to have that conversation, and so would district administration.”

Proponents object to complaints that the process of determining the referendum “ask” has been rushed. They point to the district’s Facilities Task Force – a group of more than 40 community members with various backgrounds and perspectives were initially seated – and the 23 meetings and more than 60 hours of sessions to educate members on district needs. The sessions were led by SitelogIQ, a firm hired by the School Board for $29,500 to provide community engagement and pre-referendum planning services.

The task force’s recommendation was presented to the School Board in December.

After nearly 10 months of the members’ work in 2020, and “them combing over the data and coming to their own conclusion, we really believe that this was the voice of the community, because they represented every zip code that we have” and brought a range of perspectives on the district’s future, Brenner said.

“And they all coalesced into this one decision to merge these four schools into one,” he said. “So it’s hard to know there’s a group out there who really opposes the work of the community – not the work of the superintendent or the business manager or the president of the School Board, but the work of the community.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has stymied plans to hold public meetings and communicate with parents and other voters in more in-person settings.

Board President Flynn said “before COVID hit, the plan was to go out in the public,” but then the district needed to communicate in other ways. “We had four work sessions after the Task Force recommendation.”

Flynn also reiterated that School Board meetings are open to the public and are broadcast live on YouTube.

As for SitelogIQ, it has not billed the district for its services, Berge said.

If the referendum passes, the company “would not be eligible to submit an RFP (request for proposal) on a construction project, and they knew that,” Brenner said.

The company would be eligible to submit a bid to provide architectural design, but not to oversee “the full gamut of construction and management services,” Berge said.

It would be able to obtain a contract for other work, such an energy savings contract, Brenner said.

Flynn summarized her thoughts on the referendum and its potential impact.

“It’s about how we move forward,” she said. “But unless we can come to a common ground together and work toward a better future for our kids to give them something better and a place where they can learn and feel safe, and turn around generations of community members who want to stay in this community, it will be for nothing if we don’t work together.”