The Grand Forks region is ranked favorably in a report compiled by the U.S. Air Force, though improvements could be made in a few areas to polish the quality of life for servicemembers who live in the region.
The Air Force recently released its second Support of Military Families report. It provides an assessment of the communities surrounding all 157 Air Force installations, with the intent of letting community leaders know where improvements can be made. All four Air Force installations in North Dakota ranked in the top third of that report, though Grand Forks Air Force Base ranks toward the bottom of those top-third bases.
In the Air Force rankings, Hector Field in Fargo comes in at No. 13, Cavalier Space Force Station is No. 27, Minot Air Force Base is No. 30 and GFAFB is ranked No. 47. There are 157 installations in the rankings.
“This is not a pass or fail situation. This is just meant to be a tool to start conversations and share ideas on how we can better improve the lives of our airmen and their families,” said Lea Greene, chief of public affairs at Grand Forks Air Force Base.
Sixty percent of the report is based on academic performance in local schools, 20% is on school climate and the remainder is based on service offerings. The report color-codes each community -- red means a location is ranked in the bottom third of all bases, yellow is in the middle, and green means top third.
The community surrounding GFAFB was given an overall green ranking, the same it was given in a 2020 report based on 2019 public data. Though some parts of the report show improvements in Grand Forks, others dropped.
Academic performance and the student learning rate for the region dropped from a yellow rating to red, likely due to the impact of the coronavirus and schools moving to an online learning environment in 2020. The report looked at school districts in what is called the Military Housing Area surrounding air base communities. Locally, that means Grand Forks, Larimore, Emerado, Manvel, Northwood and Thompson.
Greene said other communities dropped in this regard, as well.
“I think it's just a sign that our nation as a whole is trying to overcome the challenges that COVID brought us,” she said.
The graduation rate of students in those districts improved from a yellow to green rating.
Concerning school climate, chronic absenteeism and the number of suspensions, the region scored strictly in the green.
The GFAFB region generally scored well in the services it offers to its residents, but the availability of pre-kindergarten services remained at a red ranking in 2021, as it did in 2019. The same red ranking applied to the communities surrounding Cavalier Air Station, Minot Air Force Base and Hector Field, which encompasses the North Dakota Air National Guard.
“I wouldn’t take this as a hard and fast failure by any means. This community is so supportive (of GFAFB), but pre-K around the nation is facing a shortage,” Greene said.
Other areas that saw improvements include the ratio of students and mental health support, which moved from yellow to green; and the student-to-nurse ratio, which moved from red to yellow. Greene and Tom Ford, Grand Forks County administrator, said the latter may have changed because of work done by the Grand Fork County Commission, which moved to hire school nurses for some rural districts in late 2020, while providing support for others.
In addition to quality of education, school environment and availability of services, the report ranks communities on the portability of professional licenses. In this regard, all Air Force installation communities received a yellow ranking, despite the state passing a license reciprocity law for military spouses in 2019. The new law eases the process for military spouses to gain a professional license for certain professions, provided they have acquired a similar license elsewhere.
According to the report, occupations in the legal, nursing, physical therapy and emergency medical services fields received a green rating. Other occupations, the report concludes, face hurdles.
“Barriers remain for accounting, cosmetology, engineering and teaching, which include requirements to demonstrate active practice in (their) home state for two of the four years before application,” reads a portion of the Air Force report. “Additionally there are barriers for other occupations, as the statute does not exclude any other occupations from licensure portability burdens.”
However, Bruce Gjovig, an Air Force civic leader, believes the report is in error when it ranks the state in the yellow instead of the green in that regard. Gjovig sent an email to those who compile the report noting that specific language on the number of years a person must have worked in their home state was deleted from the final version of the bill on professional license portability.
The final bill, Gjovig wrote, "worked to remove the concerns and objections of USAF which ranks each state on licensing reciprocity/portability for military member and spouses."
Ford, a member of Grand Forks Base Retention and Investment Committee, said he had not seen the report yet, but committee members will be interested in addressing the easy transfer of professional licenses.
“The BRIC is going to definitely make that a priority when they see the report,” Ford said.
Greene said she doesn’t believe the report is generally used by service members to check out a community when they transfer. That is usually left to a Google search. If people are surprised by scenes of frigid winter, they generally reach out to a person who has been stationed at GFAFB before.
“Word of mouth, Grand Forks has a great reputation amongst our airmen,” she said. “There's a lot of calming down that happens after the Google search.”