When Grand Forks residents go to the polls June 22 to vote on a school district referendum, they’ll essentially be deciding how the district will pay for upgrades and renovations for the foreseeable future, according to the president of the local School Board.
The two-part proposal calls for:
● Closing Wilder and Winship elementary schools on the north side and building a new K-8 facility that would replace Valley Middle School, and
● Gaining voter 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. The dollars raised would be used for improvements at school facilities throughout the district.
“The biggest thing for me is I don’t want to get to a point where we continue to make Band-Aid fixes on buildings with old systems,” said Amber Flynn, School Board president. “What other options are there for the good of the entire district to impact kids as a whole? When we have special needs kids who can’t change themselves and are being changed in a closet or staff bathroom because we have Band-Aid equipped changing stations, or we have kids in wheelchairs who can’t get in certain doorways, that’s a problem with me.”
Flynn, Superintendent Terry Brenner and Business Manager Scott Berge visited recently with the Herald’s editorial board, outlining why they believe voters should approve both questions on the June 22 ballot. Below is an edited and abridged transcript.
Herald: The “vote no” contingent says the facilities task force toured 10 schools but not Wilder or Winship before deciding they should close. Is that true?
Brenner: That’s an accurate statement the other group made. But strategically, we were looking at schools to do comps with. At the time when the task force was taking the school tours they had no idea what the recommendation would be at the end.
Certainly, touring West and Valley was fairly strategic because West (which has since closed) had been on the list of school closures.
The 10 that were toured were toured without any preconceived outcome. But because West was on the list of closures and because Valley was our one middle school that was really struggling with air quality, fresh air and no air conditioning, and our oldest middle school. That was the reason for that tour.
Flynn: In relation to not going on the tours, the task force also had additional information from our facilities reports from what Buildings and Grounds had done, a JLG report that they had access to. So there was a lot of supplemental information, aside from stepping foot into the buildings, that had pictures and data reports.
Herald: Has the district released any type of plan that can ensure students can safely get to school and, if so, is that contrary to any other plans from the past?
Brenner: One conversation that comes up periodically is if this referendum is successful and Valley is the new K-8 school that would merge four schools, some do feel disadvantaged that there would be a longer mileage stretch to get to that site. The board has rhetorically asked if transportation is an option or not. The district took a stance a few decades ago to get out of the busing industry.
Herald: But was there a plan 10 or 20 years ago that talked about safe travel to and from schools? And has it been disregarded?
Flynn: My assumption is that we tried to create boundaries with the more busy intersections, so it’s almost on a grid -- Washington, Gateway, streets like that. I would say there is always an opportunity to look at safety from a board perspective and we’re always going to try to understand what is the safest way to access a school. But as the city grows, we have to understand where those boundaries are drawn and where the population is moving. So that is one piece of consideration. … I wouldn't say the plan is disregarded by the board, but I would say that as the city moves and boundaries expand, we have to make sure that whatever it is, we have a plan. Certainly, what was 10 or 20 years ago likely is going to change today.
Herald: Do you feel safety has been studied and addressed enough?
Brenner: I would say that an argument about us disregarding a plan … I don’t know if you have driven on that street (near Wilder) at pickup or drop-off. It’s a nightmare. It’s convoluted. There is no two-way traffic accessible. The parking lot maybe has enough for 20 spaces. … If the referendum is successful, we can identify with engineering how we can rework some traffic patterns to make it more efficient in these neighborhoods.
Herald: Were nearby homeowners or parents surveyed before the decision was made?
Flynn: In certain ways, maybe. We had listening sessions at one point.
Brenner: You bring up a good point, Amber. The fall of 2019, before the facilities task force was ever a thought, we hosted five meetings, at Valley, Wilder, Discover, Central and Viking. We hosted neighborhood meetings then and they were very lightly attended.
When we entered into an agreement with (the consulting firm) SitelogIQ to do some community engagement, they put an electronic survey link for the entire community.
Flynn: Also, the survey was via paper at the district. And we wrote a letter to the editor.
Herald: Apparently, a draft referendum communication plan said the district leaders will do presentations at Wilder, Winship and Valley. Did they take place?
Brenner: They did not. That’s why it was a draft plan. We are planning on a live Facebook stream in the next few business days before the referendum.
Herald: Will that live Facebook event have an opportunity for people to ask questions live?
Brenner: Yes they can.
Herald: What public presentations have taken place?
Brenner: There was a presentation I made April 6 to EDC and Chamber leadership groups and that is archived and on our website for viewing.
Flynn: Our board meetings are public as well. We took a stance early on as a district that we would follow public health recommendations related to COVID. … So when we originally started these conversations about the task force about identifying how to talk to people about our story, before COVID hit, the plan was to go out in the public. But as a district, we wanted to make sure we were taking appropriate precautions. I would have loved to do a wide variety of presentations but with COVID, I certainly don’t want it to be an excuse because we tried to engage in other ways, but it has hindered a lot of hallway or grocery store conversations.
Our board meetings are open to the public. We have had conversations and regular updates at task force meetings, all of which were broadcast live on YouTube. We had four work sessions after the task force recommendation.
Brenner: When we commissioned a community task force to make this recommendation to the board and to the district administration, these were 40-plus people who volunteered and wanted to be on this committee for a variety of reasons. So really, over the course of 10 months, 23 meetings, 60-plus hours, and them combing through the data and coming to their own conclusion, we really believe this was the voice of the community.
Herald: Regarding SitelogIQ, they have done some work for the district. What has been paid?
Berge: At this point, we have not paid anything to Sitelogic. They have not invoiced us. We have one signed contract with them for $29,500 for task force/community engagement work.
Herald: For the sake of this discussion, do you see that a company has come in and done all this work for $29,000 yet hasn’t even invoiced yet? Do you think it’s fair when people think SitelogIQ might be in this for a bigger contract and thus might be telling you information to get you to build a new school?
Brenner: It might be a fair discussion but (any such critics) don’t know (North Dakota) Century Code. Sitelogic would not be eligible to submit an RFP on a construction project, and they knew that.
Herald: Then why would they do it? This is raising the suspicion of people.
Brenner: The board approved SitelogIQ as the vendor to do an energy project with us, but there is no contract for that energy project. I think they were hoping to make money on that.
Herald: So they can’t get the bid for construction, but they can still get a contract for other work if a project is approved?
Brenner: Yes. An energy savings contract.
Flynn: And when we originally contracted with them, I am paraphrasing, but they said “we are going to be with you for the long haul. This is what the contract payment is, but we’re going to try our best to have a successful (outcome) here.” What’s hard for me is I try to see the best in situations. I am a small business owner (in real estate) and when I have a client that closes on a house, that’s not the last time I see them. I engage them at other points after the closing. I want to make sure my reputation is positive in the community. I think that is what is getting lost.
Berge: An energy project, there have been some discussions there. But not knowing about the referendum, we haven’t received a proposal yet.
Herald: So they would not be eligible for other services?
Berge: They would be eligible for things like architectural design, but not for overarching management of the process.
Herald: Why vote yes on June 22?
Brenner: Voting yes illustrates support for the entire school district. In this $86 million question No.1 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. The second piece is COVID has really illustrated the importance of air quality and so many of our campuses do not have fresh returning air coming into the building. The average age of our campuses is 54 years. We now have ventilators or heaters you can’t get parts for anymore.
We want to modernize and update our environments to address how students learn today. Classrooms really ought to have more than two outlets for the technological world we live in and our learning environments need spaces where students can create and critically think and collaborate. … We want to set up the community for the next generation of how our schools will be. We also know we are part of an economic engine that drives the community.
Herald: What do you want voters to know?
Brenner: This is a great opportunity for our community of learners, our community of educators, our community of parents, and our entire community. We are part of economic growth in this community and want to be a partner with that. We want our students to experience something well beyond a 21st century environment and we can get to that with a successful referendum.
Herald: Why take such a big bite, i.e. the mill increase and construction of a new school?
Brenner: Valley Middle School is hanging on by a thread. There is no other way to say it. If you could go into the guts of the building, the pipes are almost being remanufactured to hold steam to get to classrooms for heat in the winter. That’s one small catastrophe away from having no middle school for almost 600 kids.
Herald: Then why not build a middle school? Why put kindergarten and eighth-grade kids together?
Brenner: (At the proposed K-8 school) there will be two very separate campuses, and we will gain efficiencies through HVAC, electrical, kitchens and those things. But there will be two separate gymnasiums, two lunchrooms. We can be more efficient.