Grand Forks School Board candidates offer perspectives on budget pressures, neighborhood schools

Voters will choose five members, from a field of seven candidates, to serve on the Grand Forks School Board in the Tuesday, June 9, election.

The board has been grappling with several important issues in the past few years, including a budget deficit, aging buildings, recruitment and retention of qualified staff, youth mental health and risk behaviors, equity in education and, more recently, teaching remotely during a pandemic.

Unexpected and unforeseeable physical plant projects have increased pressure on school district finances, raising questions about whether it is more economically prudent to build new rather than repair or replace costly infrastructure. Some equipment is so old, replacement parts are no longer available, engineering consultants’ reports have indicated.

In this month’s election, five candidates are running for four, four-year terms on the board. They are Lee Hensrud and incumbents Amber Flynn, Eric Lunn, Jeff Manley and Cynthia Shabb.

The two candidates running for one, two-year term are Christopher Douthit and Brad Raymond.


Another candidate for the two-year term, Linda Jenkins decided not to run, though her name is on the ballot. Jenkins made the decision to withdraw after the deadline to remove her name from the ballot, she said.

Douthit was elected to the School Board in June 2018, but resigned last summer to accept a one-year position as Schroeder Middle School interim principal, which ends June 30. The board then selected Manley to fill that position until the next election.

The candidates who win on election day begin their terms in July, joining current members Doug Carpenter, Jacqueline Hoffarth, Shannon Mikula and Bill Palmiscno. Palmiscno is serving as board president.

As a follow-up to a Herald article, published May 20, that included a profile and survey with several questions, here are the candidates’ responses to the following question:

Given that the Grand Forks school district is operating with a $5.7 million budget deficit and has about $77 million in deferred maintenance, how should the School Board approach decision-making on the future of older, lower-enrollment neighborhood schools?

Running for one, 2-year term on the board are:

Christopher Douthit

Age: 60


Education: Bachelor of Science in Education; Middle Level Education -- Master’s in Educational Leadership

Occupation: Interim Principal, Schroeder Middle School (through June 30)

I believe the decision-making process for these schools must be cost conscious and data driven while assuring we are providing an equitable education for every Grand Forks Public Schools student. We should continue to have conversations with community members and use other available information in the determination of what’s best for these and all of our schools. The demographer’s enrollment predictions through the 2024-25 school year, future budgets (which could be impacted by COVID-19), the advisory recommendation from the Community Planning Task Force and the proposed referendum will assist the board in making thoughtful decisions on our facilities. It is the school board’s responsibility to substantiate these decisions with the community.

Brad Raymond

Age: 43

Education: Bachelor’s of Business Administration from UND, 2000

Occupation: Owner of Gemini Custom Brands Inc.

Before any schools are closed, understanding the true reason why they have lower enrollment would be the first step. As I understand the current situation of things today, there are schools that have very low enrollment, while others have relocatables and are over capacity. I think we need to review what schools our children are attending and why, and make sure that it’s first correct. In order to get out of this deficit, we need to be as efficient as possible. We are also going to have to get the community involved and on board with a referendum, significant funding is going to be needed to resolve our current situation and we will need the community’s support to help build a better future for our children. If it comes down to making the difficult decision of closing schools, as a last resort, it’s going to need to be done with a very clear plan and direction so that those students, families and staff have a true and complete plan for their future.


Running for the four, 4-year terms on the board (all, except Lee Hensrud, are incumbents):

Amber Flynn

Age: 33

Education: Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Master of Science degree in Higher Education, UND

Occupation: Realtor

As someone who has benefited from an education at neighborhood schools, I understand the value they provide. In fact, each of our elementary and middle schools provides a unique educational, communal experience for our students. Through our neighborhood schools, the district and board have been committed to keeping class sizes small, creating unique educational opportunities for students and supporting a broader sense of community. We need to do a better job engaging the public and telling the story of our schools. It is also a reality that our current funding sources do not meet all the needs of the district. The board should make decisions utilizing the newly updated strategic plan (created with input from teacher, staff and community members), input from stakeholders, current facilities reports and with the understanding that every student deserves to learn in a safe and healthy environment with equitable access to education.

Lee Hensrud

Age: 45

Education: High school graduate; some college

Occupation: Self-employed, small business owner


I feel the decision making needs to be centered around what we have versus what we wish we could have. At a time with so many unknowns and deficits, I feel we need to be very careful with grandiose ideas and focus on what we have already in place, how to best utilize the schools we have to the best of our ability. Bottom line, we can’t just build and buy new when there’s opportunity to use what we have right now with minimal investment compared to the alternatives. Finding ways to work together with the city on infill planning and looking at ways to serve students in a way that benefits them the most regarding class size, their learning environment and academic experience.

Eric Lunn

Age: 61

Education: Bachelor of Science in Microbiology at North Dakota State University, Bachelor of Science in Medicine at UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences, MD (Doctor of Medicine) at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, pediatric residency at The University of Texas Medical Branch

Occupation: Physician at Spectra Health

The School Board and district need to get input from a broad variety of constituents, including community members, district staff and students. This process has already begun. In September of 2019, the district hosted five public facility forums at various schools. In February of 2020, a public forum was held at South Middle School. All of these sessions provided tremendous feedback for the School Board and district administration. Currently, there is a Long-Term Facility Planning Task Force made up of over 40 community members that will be providing additional valuable feedback. We will need to determine the ideal learning environment for all the learners within the school district. We will need to identify what is a neighborhood school, as currently it means something different to lots of individuals. We need to make sure our schools provide equity and are efficient. We have limited resources and prioritizing the needs will be critical. This will require lots of thoughtful discussions and ideas from our constituents, district administration and the School Board.

Jeff Manley

Age: 52

Education: Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from UND

Occupation: Supervisor of Data Analytics and Integration at Altru Health System


The School Board should approach the decision on the future of older, lower-enrollment neighborhood schools by providing the public facts, figures and all relevant data, then asking the public if they would like to continue to fund such schools. These older schools with lower enrollment do cost a bit more per pupil; however, many parents that have children attending these schools enjoy the lower class sizes.

We must meet the needs of all students, providing equitable opportunities across the school district. Schools on the south end that were built more recently are more able to provide a 21st century education. Schools on the north end have smaller class sizes. If the public wants to provide equal opportunities across the district, we will have to update the north-end schools to be able to provide a proper environment for the students’ learning and we may have to provide new neighborhood schools on the south end.

Cynthia Shabb

Age: 63

Education: Bachelor of Science in English Education from the University of Minnesota; Master’s in Library Science from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.; Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from UND

Occupation: Executive Director of Global Friends Coalition

This year, the Board employed Sitlogiq to assist the district in making decisions about all of our schools. A long-term facilities task force, made up of individuals from the community, was provided information about the condition of our buildings, enrollment/demographic information, strategic planning information and more. The purpose of this group is to provide feedback to the Board about the priorities and desires of the community regarding our schools. The Board needs to listen to the recommendations, hear from district personnel, examine our budget, talk with city and county leaders, communicate with community members and together decide whether there is support for a referendum and what we want our schools to be in the future. We need funding in order to keep schools safe for the teaching and learning of students. What we do and how we proceed depends a lot on what the community is able to support.


Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at or (701) 780-1107.
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