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Grand Forks School Board decides to delay referendum

At special virtual meeting Monday, April 4, board opts for election sometime after June to allow time for communication plan that addresses voters' questions

Mark Sanford Center Grand Forks schools logo sign tower.jpg
The Mark Sanford Education Center, headquarters of Grand Forks Public Schools. (Grand Forks Herald photo)

GRAND FORKS -- Although June has been discussed as a possible date for a citywide school referendum to address facility needs, including a new Valley Middle School, the Grand Forks School Board has decided to delay the election to a later date, possibly as part of the general election this November.

The decision was made at a special board meeting, held virtually at noon, Monday, April 4.

Board members discussed results from last week’s public forum about a proposed referendum to raise $55 million to build a new Valley Middle School, for grades 6-8 only, on its current site. The referendum package would include building a new Child Nutrition center at the Mark Sanford Education Center on the city’s south side.

Board member Doug Carpenter, who heads the board’s finance committee, pressed for a referendum in June, citing the need to address critical infrastructure needs at Valley Middle School.

“We need to do something and do it quickly,” Carpenter said. “We have the basics from the last effort.”

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An $86 million referendum was defeated by voters last June, but, on a second try, a request for an increase of 10 mills for the district’s building fund passed in September.

Other board members expressed concern that a June election presented too short a timeline to mount an effective communication campaign, including an architect’s rendering of the new middle school, to the public.

“Delaying (the referendum) until November would be a wise decision,” said Jeff Manley, board member, to allow time “to get more information to the public.”

The date of the referendum and ballot language were undetermined, and will likely be addressed at a future board meeting.

Public input

The district’s public forum, held March 28 in the evening at South Middle School, was designed to gather input on a possible referendum focused on building a new Valley Middle School.

School district leaders also used the forum to gauge public support for a single middle school referendum that would add $21 million to the $55 million referendum question, to provide numerous facility upgrades at Schroeder Middle School, including those required by the American with Disabilities Act; accommodations for medically fragile students; and parking, roofing and HVAC improvements.

At Monday’s meeting, Superintendent Terry Brenner, who reviewed comments and other results of the forum, said there seemed “overall” to be approval for the Valley Middle School project.

But a review of forum responses found that “the $76 million ask is awfully close to the ask in June ‘21,” Brenner said.

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He noted “mixed results” on the question of support for a possible referendum, posed in the next five years, to add to an existing elementary school or to build a new elementary school to alleviate overcrowding, since some schools are at, or nearly at, capacity.

Board member Chris Douthit cautioned that the forum attendees represent a small sampling of Grand Forks voters. Those who made the effort to attend the forum “are more motivated to be involved and generally more supportive,” Carpenter said.

Leading up to an election, clear communication that outlines the reasons for the referendum, is a must, several board members said.

“We need to get our message out and make sure it’s simplified,” said Board President Eric Lunn. “It’s too tall a task to get it done by June.”

Lunn acknowledged that “we’re one busted pipe away from shutting a middle school down,” as he advocated for “a communication plan that’s not just about a middle school, but all schools.”

Board Vice President Amber Flynn said, “We need to have more clarity in our ask, not just about schools, but the education piece. There’s a lot of communication that needs to be defined better. We need to tell our story more.”

She recommended “meeting people where they’re at,” whether at neighborhood forums or the summertime farmers market, and using videos to illustrate actual conditions, such as extremes in temperature, that Valley Middle School students and staff endure.

Carpenter pointed out that five new members could be elected to the school board in the upcoming June election, and it would take time for them to get up to speed on issues the board is facing and the new board could vote down the referendum.

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The work of the board is ongoing, Lunn said. “It’s a mistake” to rush the referendum, because new board members may not support a referendum.

“(Those who run) believe they’re there to support the kids,” he said.

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Related Topics: GRAND FORKS PUBLIC SCHOOLS
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 pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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