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Grand Forks school district leaders react to successful referendum

Voters approve a mill levy increase for district's building fund

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A steady stream of voters cast their ballots in the Grand Forks Public Schools referendum Tuesday at the Alerus Center. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

While his fellow Grand Forks school district administrators are definitely upbeat after Tuesday’s, Sept. 28, successful referendum, Chris Arnold probably has more reason than most to be, in his words, “elated and excited” by the outcome.

As buildings and grounds director, Arnold sees firsthand the wide assortment of infrastructure problems in the district’s facilities and grapples on a daily basis with plans on how and when to address them.

“I feel that the community has stepped up to support their schools, and I’m just elated and excited to make an impact in our buildings,” he said. “This is not only the first step for us to start to get our facilities under control, but also to get that finance piece under control as well.”

In the referendum, voters approved, with a 66% majority, a 10-mill hike in the property tax levy which will generate about $2.5 million annually in additional revenue for the district’s building fund. This is the second time voters were asked for the mill levy increase, which had originally failed to attain the 60% required to pass during the June vote.

“Anytime you get a super-majority, it’s a win,” said Superintendent Terry Brenner.

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He and his colleagues are “very happy” with the results of the referendum, he said Wednesday, Sept. 29, noting that 77% of the total roughly 5,400 votes cast in June were cast in this week’s election.

The mill increase for the building fund “gives us an opportunity to reset our building-slash-maintenance fund -- a fund we haven’t had for the last 10 years,” he said. “It takes a lot of pressure off our general fund, so we know we won’t have to deal with catastrophic and emergent failures using the general fund.”

It will free up funds that can be used for “curriculum resources, equity issues between and among schools, and also provides us the opportunity for a little more breathing room when we’re back at the bargaining table with all of our (employee) groups,” Brenner said.

“It’s certainly not the pathway forward, for example, for a new north end campus, whatever that structure might look like,” he said. “That’s a conversation that we’ll get back on the table, sooner rather than later, in trying to create a clean pathway forward there.”

While in the June election voters responded to two questions -- the other being an $86 million bond issue for a new K-8 school on the city’s north side -- Brenner attributed this week’s favorable outcome to “a laser-like focus on the 10 mills and its prospective impact on our building fund,” he said. “I believe the messaging was tighter and more consistent throughout the community.”

It was difficult to predict the election outcome, because a couple of variables were in play -- COVID and the mask requirement continued, he said, adding that he was aware some people planned to vote no because of the mask policy.

“I’m just grateful that the community came out and supported this special election in a way I was hopeful for, but yet I was a bit uncertain about,” Brenner said. “We’re thrilled with the results.”

‘Vital’ funds

The increase in mills for the building fund “is really vital to moving forward with our school district facilities,” said Scott Berge, the district’s business manager, noting that he and his colleagues are “very appreciative” that voters approved the mill increase.

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In the past five years, the school district has had to draw close to $12 million from the general fund for facilities needs -- money that’s meant for student education and day-to-day operations, not facilities, he said.

“The shortfall I see is more on the (ADA) accessibility side and the safety of our facilities, from secure entries, et cetera,” Berge said. Some of those accommodations “were not on the minds of architects” when some of the district’s buildings were built.

“We’re going to need more funds to cover accessibility and safety and things of that nature down the road,” he said. But the new funds provided by the mill levy increase will give a “nice jump start” for many infrastructure projects.

“Even with the 10 mills, we’re really at the bottom of facility mill levies that we’re accessing compared to other districts,” he said. “Community support is crucial. But at some point, we will be coming back to the taxpayers with some other needs.”

The additional mill levy funds that will flow to the district will allow administrators to “execute a progressive facility model -- meaning (that) we are taking care of maintenance items, there’s money there to take care of those items,” Arnold said, “and now we can begin to budget and actually begin to build our projects, year by year.”

“We have nearly 800 different types of projects, all at varying scopes and scale,” Arnold said.

“Obviously $2.5 million isn’t going to buy us everything. But we can save, maybe, a little bit of that money away and kind of build up a fund” to deal with more pressing needs.

Improving ADA accessibility and indoor air quality and addressing life safety projects -- including sprinkler and fire alarm and mass notification systems -- are going to be among his top priorities, Arnold said.

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Eric Lunn, president of the School Board, praised school administrators for raising public awareness about the challenges facing the district, but noted that the successful outcome of the referendum will not totally meet all the infrastructure needs.

“Dr. Brenner and his team very expertly outlined the issues regarding our facilities needs in the school district to the public,” Lunn said in an email to the Herald. “In spite of the tax increase approved (Tuesday), the district will receive only 33% of the total property tax compared to 40% in Minot, 46% in Bismarck and West Fargo, and 53% in Fargo.”

Amber Flynn, School Board vice president, has similar views on Grand Forks Public Schools financial situation.

“The district has gone through many exercises to streamline the budget over the past few years, including a recent $4 million in budget cuts, mostly seen through attrition, increased revenue dollars through grant opportunities and community partnerships, and advocacy at the state level to change the per-pupil funding model, to name a few,” Flynn said.

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