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With more maintenance money incoming, Grand Forks Public Schools weighs its finance plans

Grand Forks-area voters approved a 10-mil property tax increase in September, and revenue from that tax is expected to start hitting the district's bank account beginning next month. School board members are set to begin figuring out how, exactly, they'll spend that money, which district staff expect will total about $2.5 million annually.

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)
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GRAND FORKS — Grand Forks Public Schools officials are set to meet next week to figure out how they might spend the additional money they’re set to receive from area property owners each year.

Grand Forks voters in September approved a 10-mil property tax levy that will pay the district an estimated $2.5 million each year – money that’s meant to pay for a laundry list of maintenance and upkeep projects when it starts rolling in next month. But district leaders haven’t yet determined where that money will go: should they spend some of it each year and save the rest for a larger maintenance project a few years down the road? Borrow a larger sum of money and use money from the levy to repay it over a period of years? If so, how much?

They plan to meet on Wednesday, Feb. 9, to work out some of those questions, but there are broader, intertwined issues to consider as well. School officials will, ultimately, need to decide how to realize a plan that aims to build up Grand Forks Public Schools’ cash reserves, plus how much money they want to spend beyond the $2.5 million per year produced by last fall’s vote, and whether they’d seek to supplement that money with yet another building referendum.

Cash reserves

District leaders agreed to rebuild their general fund’s balance – think savings account – from $7.4 million this school year to approximately $17.8 million in the 2025-2026 school year, a figure they estimate will represent about 15% of Grand Forks Public Schools’ total general fund expenditures. That will mean an average of $1.5 million worth of cuts to the general fund budget in each year of that plan, according to Scott Berge, the district’s business manager.

For the moment, though, that plan is more or less just numbers on paper. District staff are meeting “internally” to work on the cuts they’d need to make to realize the plan.

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“Here’s where the rubber hits the road,” Berge told the Herald. “That’s where there’s going to be a variety of meetings to work towards what will make up those numbers.”

District officials will need to balance that effort, though, against the sometimes-pressing maintenance needs at their buildings.

Three general fund ‘drawdown’ ideas

Now that the district has a further $2.5 million or so to spend each year on medium- and long-term maintenance and renovations, that presumably frees up money in its general fund that otherwise would have gone to those sorts of projects. But that money is dwarfed by the size and cost of that work, which district staff estimated last summer would cost about $260.9 million, in all – $202.4 million worth of more necessary work on roofs, parking lots, and heating and cooling systems, plus approximately $60 million more on important, but less structurally necessary work, such as security systems and accessibility measures, Berge said Thursday.

Grand Forks Public Schools staff on Tuesday presented to members of the district’s finance committee three scenarios that outline increasingly aggressive plans to pay for repairs on that list.

The cheapest of those scenarios would still spend – “draw down” – $500,000 from the district’s general fund, despite the new levy money, and reappropriate, at least in the 2022-2023 school year, about $1.1 million worth of federal COVID-19 aid that district administrators budgeted for staff they were unable to hire, such as social workers, English language teachers, and special education therapists. That money, combined with the approximately $2.5 million from the new property tax levy, means a grand total of $4.1 million to work with next year.

The spendiest and most drastic idea would draw $6 million from the general fund each year, plus take advantage of the money left over from the unfilled positions and the levy money – $9.6 million in all, give or take. But that $6 million has to come from somewhere, and documents supplied to finance committee members on Tuesday indicate it would require eliminating approximately 84 jobs from the school district’s payroll.

That, Berge said, is a sort-of “doomsday” scenario, assuming the district isn’t able to find further funding or receive another positive referendum vote. Brenda Lewis, the district’s assistant superintendent of elementary education, told finance committee members that budget discussions have to include the potential “impact on the trajectory of our students.”

“We have to balance teaching and learning in this, and it is unfair to say to staff, ‘do more with less,’” Lewis said Tuesday.

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School Board member Doug Carpenter said he understood Lewis’ point, “but we’re also going to have to pay the bills for the facilities, and where’s the money going to come from?”

Three referendum ideas

Related to, but distinct from, those considerations, district leaders will also need to agree on the ins and outs of another potential funding request from area voters.

District staff presented to finance committee members on Tuesday three potential referendum plans.

The first: put forward no further referenda and use funding that’s already in place to fix up the district’s buildings, which district staff believe is not financially sustainable, even with substantial spending out of the general fund.

The second potential plan: seek voter approval to replace Valley Middle School, which would be costly but render moot the building’s many maintenance issues, and use existing district funding sources to work on the rest of its buildings.

The third plan would seek voter approval for money to replace Valley and extensively renovate Schroeder Middle School and South Middle School.

Berge estimated that a referendum to replace Valley would total about $42.5 million, and a referendum to replace it and renovate Schroder and South would total about $82.7 million.

Board member Bill Palmiscno suggested breaking the potential referenda into chunks to be voted on every few years.

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“I think the first step is to take care of Valley,” he said Tuesday. “And, possibly, in two years, take care of South and Schroeder. Now your middle schools are out of the picture, and that spreads out the referendums not all at once. I think 82 million all in one shot is too much. But I think Valley standing alone is something we could pass.”

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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