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Hoped-for tax increase would give Grand Forks Public Schools 'room to breathe'

At a special joint meeting held Monday, Aug. 16, Grand Forks Public Schools leaders laid out the myriad problems facing the school district's buildings. A coming tax referendum would help, but not cure, those problems.

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A dour report from Grand Forks Public Schools administrators was, Mayor Brandon Bochenski said, the most disheartening thing he’s seen since he was elected last year.

At a joint meeting on Monday, school district staff outlined to Grand Forks City Council members $260.9 million worth of problems at the 18 buildings they maintain across the city, underscoring the district’s second attempt to convince Grand Forks voters to approve a property tax hike that would pay for some of them to be fixed over the next several years. District staff presented slide after slide of problems: buildings without proper sprinkler systems, sinking granite staircases, sweltering elementary schools, decades-old HVAC systems, and high school pools that were to be shut down because of unfixed filtration systems.

“Well, tell us the bad news,” the mayor quipped to lighten the mood, later praising teachers for their work despite the quality of the school buildings themselves. “How can we have a good growing town without having proper schools? ... We need to look to the future and then solve some of these problems because it affects the region, it affects the kids’ quality of their education. It’s not something that is a punchline.”

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School district leaders want to increase the property taxes the district imposes on Grand Forks residents by 10 mils, a unit of measurement that represents a $1 tax on every $1,000 worth of value in a piece of property, but that plan needs to be approved by at least 60% of voters this September.

The district asked for an identical tax tax hike earlier this summer, but it, along with an $86 million request to borrow money to reshuffle a handful of public schools here, was defeated . But Superintendent Terry Brenner told council members on Monday that the 54% of the vote the mil increase received was encouraging.

“It’s not going to give us room to catch up,” Brenner said of the coming referendum, “but it would give us some room to breathe.”

The earlier 10 mil referendum would have brought in about $2.5 million each year for the district. City staff are set to put together a resolution of support for the upcoming referendum that council members can consider at meetings later this month and in early September, according to City Administrator Todd Feland, but the city is not considering offering financial support.

“The health of a community has to be measured in large part by how it treats its children,” City Council member Bret Weber said. “This is indicating a problematic, if not a troubled, community.”

Related Topics: GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

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