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Grand Forks School Board candidates weigh in on neighborhood schools

Discussions about closing neighborhood schools have occurred a number of times in the past decade.

Winship Elementary Grand Forks wide angle .jpg
A June 9, 2021, photo at Winship Elementary School in Grand Forks. (Grand Forks Herald photo)
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GRAND FORKS — Most of the candidates for Grand Forks School board have a favorable view of neighborhood schools, and approximately half say they favor keeping them open.

However, a number of candidates — some of whom profess admiration or hope for the small schools — admit difficult decisions may have to be made as buildings continue to age and wrack up maintenance costs.

Parents on Grand Forks’ north side for years have worried that the small schools near their homes might close due to low enrollment numbers, the schools’ age and mounting costs associated with upkeep.

Discussions about closing neighborhood schools have occurred a number of times in the past decade , coming to a head last year when Grand Forks voters were asked to decide whether to close Wilder and Winship elementary schools and replace them with a new, and larger, K-8 facility. That proposal failed, getting only 30.7% approval by voters.

In late 2017 and early 2018, a school facilities committee proposed a number of options , including closing and demolishing the three so-called “W” schools – Winship, Wilder and West. It sparked considerable backlash, especially among parents in those neighborhoods .

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In a questionnaire sent to candidates for School Board, the Herald asked for their views on neighborhood schools. A number of candidates said they favor keeping the city's smallest facilities open.

Overall, there are 23 candidates vying for five seats, all of which are at-large positions. All 23 candidates are running for four-year terms, which begin in July. The election is June 14.

Those who responded to the Herald’s questionnaire were Josh Anderson, Ronald Barta, Dave Berger, Dee Decimus, Elizabeth Delgado, Monte Gaukler, Senta Grzadziewlewski, Jacqueline Hassett, Jennifer Kolodka, Joel Larson, Sona Lesmeister, Bonnie McMullin, Cameron Murphy, Bill Palmiscno, Mark Peterson, Kelly Schempp, Marie Stewart, Brad Sturlaugson, David Waterman and Emily Wros. Hassett and Palmiscno are running as incumbents.

Three candidates — Roland Riemers, Courtney Kniert and Aaron Waterman — did not respond.

The fourth question on the questionnaire specifically referenced aging schools and asked the candidates their views on neighborhood schools.

Sturlaugson said “we need schools in neighborhoods, because children need to learn in an environment they are familiar with.”

“I am in favor of keeping neighborhood schools,” said Stewart. “Many families purchase homes near schools they hope their children can attend. I think it would be worthwhile to get a second opinion on current building needs.”

David Waterman said “I believe neighborhood schools should be encouraged and supported, not abandoned.”

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Not everyone agrees.

In 2020, a Grand Forks School District Facilities Task Force convened in a monthslong series of meetings and eventually recommended closure and consolidation of schools in the coming five to 15 years . Rising costs and lower enrollment were included in the rationale.

And last year, issues at tiny West Elementary mounted until it was determined the school should close . At the time, radon had been detected in the building, and a host of infrastructure improvements were needed, including waterproofing and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems.

Some of the candidates professed some level of interest in keeping neighborhood schools, but also addressed the reality of doing so.

“Neighborhood schools are an asset,” said Wros. “They raise property values and encourage community spirit. Unfortunately, it’s often more expensive to renovate an old building than to construct new, or to run several small buildings instead of a few large ones and I expect that it will be necessary to consolidate.”

Below are answers from the 20 candidates who responded to the following question: “It’s been said Grand Forks has too many aging schools that require extensive and costly repairs. What are your views on the number of schools in Grand Forks and, particularly, on neighborhood schools?

Many of the answers are edited for brevity. To see their entire answer on this question and five others, visit the Herald’s website and search for “ Grand Forks School Board candidates: A look at their answers to six questions from the Herald ".

Josh Anderson: Efforts to improve building conditions, where investment makes sense, have been planned. With the additional 10 mills of funding that was recently approved by a vote of taxpayers, this provides a start in climbing this mountain. Beyond that, some large challenges, and in turn decisions, around the number of facilities, overall facility failure and community growth need to be made. Data and input have been provided and now decisions need to be made.

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Ron Barta: It is a fact that the current facilities are advanced in years. Based on the student numbers for some schools, the costs to operate (manpower/utilities/scheduled and unscheduled maintenance) the current model is not sustainable. Old buildings will get older and require more maintenance. We need to identify the specific requirements, identify why the maintenance was deferred, and make the hard decisions. If that is moving away from the “neighborhood schools” model then that is what we need to do.

Dave Berger: Many families are looking specifically for neighborhood schools, and many learners benefit from these environments as well. … We need a comprehensive and transparent approach to any decision involving closing another school, balancing maintenance needs, state requirements, building codes, accessibility, student safety, and new visions for classroom and building use as we discern whether repair or replacement is the better option.

Ultimately, we need to keep our current financial situation and budget projections in mind as we make the best decisions possible for our kids.

Dee Decimus: Parents want neighborhood schools. We need to keep them well maintained, not ignoring maintenance so they are forced to build new. We need to put kids first and do what we can to ensure the quality of our future community. Creating equitable access, learning opportunities and including the voice of each learner, a strong sense of belonging will be cultivated and in turn, each student will be empowered and equipped to be successful.

Elizabeth Delgado: Our city has a sufficient number of schools. When you don’t take care of what you have, it becomes overwhelming to the point of thinking it’s “too many” or “too much.” In reality, it only seems overwhelming because of how extensive maintenance and repair needs become when put off for far too long.

When asking couples what they look for in considering a move, the most common answer I get is “a school in the neighborhood.” Neighborhood schools attract families and businesses which give the local economy a boost. Schools tend to be at the heart of the neighborhoods in which they exist and build neighborhood cohesion.

Monte Gaukler: I understand the value of neighborhood schools and I support small class sizes. Figuring out how to do this in a fiscally responsible way is one of the key tasks of the School Board. When this conversation is brought up, I think it is important to have all voices at the table and listen to all points of view. Then and only then will the right and prudent decision be made for the school district.

Senta Grzadzielewski: I support the building of new facilities when the old facilities no longer provide a safe and equitable learning environment for the students. Additionally, I support neighborhood schools. I think the community should care about the state of our schools, whether they have children in the system, homeschool, have no kids, etc. Part of that involves an effective campaign to help the surrounding areas understand the current state of the schools and a clear understanding of what they will gain from their investment.

Jacqueline Hassett: I think decisions about our schools need to be based on data and community needs. I have always advocated for stakeholder involvement in how these decisions are made and they are certainly tough decisions. What is good for one group may not be the best for another. It is why I was a board member who really pushed for forming a stakeholder task force on facilities. Centering students, it is true we need to improve our buildings or build new buildings to provide safe environments for learning and growth in our district. There is no way around it. It is going to be super important we find ways to engage more community members moving forward so we can build trust and make tough choices which are best for all of us – particularly students. I enjoy our small schools and was a West elementary parent for many many years. I do think we need to look at the reality of our schools' conditions and engage the public before jumping into long-term decisions. The only thing I do know needs to happen is we need a new Valley Middle School. That school's needs are urgent.

Jennifer Kolodka: When you compare GFPS to other districts, I don’t believe we are operating too many buildings. Neighborhood schools have wide ranging value for the students, the families, the building atmosphere for staff, and the overall relationship, sense of pride and connection with the neighborhood. The citizens of Grand Forks have made their voices heard a few times on this issue and they like neighborhood schools. Families want to feel that they have a sense of involvement and belonging within GFPS. They want that smaller town, smaller school feel with opportunities for involvement and awareness of their child’s educational life inside that building. Neighborhood schools with active and engaged PTOs are an excellent way to foster that relationship and connection. As a school board member, I would like to put time and energy into helping each school build a stronger PTO/PTA organization.

Joel Larson: Equity in the school district is a critical issue. Our family is fortunate to belong to nearby neighborhood schools and I would hope that every child/family could be so fortunate. Certainly, this isn’t the case for everyone, but the value it brings to each child who has this luxury will be something I look at very closely. There are some very difficult choices that will need to be made regarding school repairs or rebuilding and I will consider all voices and the perspectives of each person that the decisions will impact.

Sona Leismeister: Grand Forks is the type of a community where neighborhood schools are a welcomed feature. We have prided ourselves with a very good safety track record, which is at least partly due to having neighborhood schools, I believe. It seems there is an expected growth of the community – housing market is booming and the house inventory is low. If this is the case, having fewer schools doesn't seem to make sense. My question is: How did we allow the school facilities in such disrepair for so long? Was there a lack of foresight in the former boards? Inadequate funds allocation for this purpose? To answer the question fully, I would need to have more information, so we don't end up reacting, instead of being proactive with any proposed solution.

Bonnie McMullin: I love the idea of neighborhood schools. They are charming. I love teaching in them. I love the low teacher-to-student ratios. I wish everyone could experience a school like our neighborhood schools. Is this a favorable and sustainable model moving forward? I am not sure that it is fair or feasible to operate our neighborhood schools the way they have been run in the past. Am I against them? No. Do I see issues that involve fixing and running a school for 80-100 students when there is so much need throughout the district? Yes.

We may need to look to our beloved neighborhood schools and prioritize. … In a perfect world we would fix or rebuild all of our schools that provide such amazing opportunities.

Cameron Murphy: Neighborhood schools at the elementary level are beneficial but are also quite costly. The more buildings we have the higher the cost, not just in maintenance, but also in salaries. We must strike a balance between what we want and what we can truly support. The simple reality is that with the current budget we are hard pressed to support all the schools, especially those with lower enrollment. We also have the issue of too many students in some schools. Both can be addressed through redrawing the lines, but this also disrupts the idea of a neighborhood school to begin with. One solution to solve the overcrowding problem is year-round school.

Bill Palmiscno: Continue to monitor enrollment at all schools, and case-by-case decisions are made as needed. I don't advocate or oppose but hard decisions may be needed in the future.

Mark Peterson: I would propose to have a three- to four-hour forum on TV/radio where parents, teachers, students and administrators would be able to come and ask tons of questions and voice concerns about anything they can think of. We would compile lists of concerns for each school and general concerns for the whole district & try to address them one-by-one, based off the current budget.

Kelly Schempp: One quality I love about Grand Forks is the small town feel with benefits of a larger city. This community feel is one of the driving reasons why my husband and I have decided to stay and raise our family here. Our neighborhood schools help foster that feeling and relationships with local families, and allow students to create lifelong friendships.

We do have many aging schools that are at capacity while in need of repairs or updating to meet ADA compliance. Eventually we will need to look at an addition being built upon an existing elementary school or a new facility being built. At this time, I think we should focus on the upkeep and repairs of our neighborhood schools.

Marie Stewart: I am in favor of keeping neighborhood schools. Many families purchase homes near schools they hope their children can attend. I think it would be worthwhile to get a second opinion on current building needs. As of now all buildings in need of massive repairs are currently serving our students. Under ESSER all HVAC projects were eligible for funding using the $28 million awarded to GFPS. A plan for biannual routine building inspections and maintenance checklists should be required for every facility. There should never be a deferred maintenance list. The people of Grand Forks want functional, comfortable and safe schools to send their kids.

Brad Sturlaugson: Buildings age and they need required maintenance and sometimes reconstructive maintenance, eventually they need to be replaced but that can be done in sections and over several years with planning and budgeting. We need schools in neighborhoods, because children need to learn in an environment they are familiar with.

David Waterman: Neighborhood schools are very attractive to most neighborhoods and most parents. I believe neighborhood schools should be encouraged and supported, not abandoned.

Emily Wros: Neighborhood schools are an asset. They raise property values and encourage community spirit. Unfortunately, it’s often more expensive to renovate an old building than to construct new, or to run several small buildings instead of a few large ones, and I expect that it will be necessary to consolidate.

Other stories related to the School Board race can be found on the Herald's website, including:

Korrie Wenzel has been publisher of the Grand Forks Herald and Prairie Business Magazine since 2014.

He is a member of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. board of directors and, in the past, has served on boards for Junior Achievement, the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, United Way, Empire Arts Center, Cornerstones Career Learning Center and Crimestoppers.


As publisher, Wenzel oversees news, advertising and business operations at the Herald, as well as the newspaper's opinion content.



Wenzel can be reached at 701-780-1103, or via Twitter via @korriewenzel.
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