Referendum Q&A: Opponents of Grand Forks Public Schools proposal say the decision was rushed, with little public input
"The district has been doing a poor job of letting people know about this vote," says Justin Berry.
Three Grand Forks residents who are against building a new school and thereby closing two older schools claim the decision to move forward with a communitywide vote was a hasty decision based on questionable information and without enough community input.
Justin Berry, Mark Rustad and Scott Lindgren say they will vote against the new school proposal when Grand Forks Public Schools voters go to the polls Tuesday, June 22.
The two-part proposal calls for:
● Closing Wilder and Winship elementary schools on the north side and building a new K-8 facility that would replace Valley Middle School; and
● Gaining voter approval of a 10-mill increase in property taxes, which school leaders say is a roughly $3.75 increase per month for every $100,000 of home value. The dollars raised would be used for improvements at school facilities throughout the district.
The three visited with the Grand Forks Herald’s editorial board earlier this month, outlining their concerns.
“Our position is that we want a good, solid education system in Grand Forks. We’re not just naysayers but we demand a better plan,” said Lindgren. “This seems to be a little rushed or pushed.”
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The election will take place from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. June 22 at the Alerus Center, 1200 S. 42nd St.
Following is an abridged transcript of the meeting between the Herald editorial board and the “vote no” contingent.
Herald: Why not support the referendum?
Rustad: The reasons not to vote for it are plentiful. There is a big lack of planning and when you hire an outside firm to basically shed the blame if anything goes wrong -- they’re extremely expensive and obviously wanted the contract for the architectural stuff because that was literally in their initial contract. … I don’t believe Grand Forks, coming off the heels of COVID, can necessarily afford this at this time. I think the timing is terrible and the project is stupid. You’re taking schools away from neighborhoods where they already exist and people who will be negatively impacted will be asked to pay for it.
Berry: I know the schools need work. We've seen that some of the schools need work.
Some of the process, though, with the facility task group, they toured 10 schools but never toured Wilder or Winship. So they never went in those schools before deciding they should be closed.
Herald: Why do you feel they didn’t tour those schools?
Berry: I can’t speculate on why, but they just weren't toured. The task force was facilitated by the district’s consultant. I’m not shifting blame anywhere, but I don’t know why they weren't toured. I wouldn't even buy a pair of pants before trying them on, let alone shut down two neighborhood schools that would negatively impact hundreds of children and a lot of families.
There are a lot of “vote no” signs and the people I have talked to are very opposed to Wilder closing. Wilder has the second lowest amount of deferred maintenance needs among all the elementary schools, second only to Discovery. …. With Wilder, too, the district has stated they cannot afford free busing. Ten years ago, the school board stated that due to high traffic counts and speeds, North Washington should be an elementary school boundary.
They even shifted the boundary lines a little between Winship and Wilder at that time to ensure students don’t have to cross North Washington. It seems that is no longer a concern. They have not stated any safety plans, any busing. So now a lot of the children there do walk to school. It’s not a choice, but a need for a lot of families in the near-north. Another concern is child safety. Will those children have to cross North Washington?
(The district) hasn’t released any type of plans to ensure those children are safe getting to school.
I think Valley needs a lot of work, for sure. If they would have had in this proposal that they would rebuild Valley, they would have gotten support. But adding in elementary consolidations does not make this plan work. Adding the elementary school consolidation makes this a bad plan.
Herald: The district’s relationship with the consulting firm SitelogIQ became clunky, no doubt about it. But does the clunkiness of that process mean they should stop and not go forward with the plan to consolidate and build?
Lindgren: I went to the board meeting on March 22 when they took final comments and made the motion to move ahead with consolidation. There were a lot of questions. The questions were … deferred to either (Superintendent Terry) Brenner or Scott Berge (the district’s business manager) and referred right to SitelogIQ people. I heard no reasons on why consolidation was needed. There were no reasons given that I heard.
I don’t know if you have seen these numbers (produces a deferred maintenance chart). This was the study on deferred maintenance done by JLG a couple of years ago. We know the numbers are higher now, with costs of construction and materials and so forth.
But if you look at Wilder and Winship here, total, their total is less than all others individually except Discovery and Lake Agassiz. They were deemed so unimportant they were in the third phase.
So you’re taking the two less-needs schools and if you combine those, the amount of dollars (of deferred) was $2.5 million. … I don’t get the number thing, or the need. Where is the need?
They have not demonstrated what efficiencies they will get.
You have all heard of ESSER funds (which come from the federal government during the pandemic). So on ESSER 1 funds, COVID relief, I think it was like $1.5 million. Of that, 20% had to go to kids that may have fallen between the cracks, extra lunch program, tutoring, whatever. The real dollars come in during ESSER 2 and 3 phases.
ESSER 2 is $8 million plus and ESSER 3 is $18 million plus. So now you have, and I’m just speaking round numbers, $26 million, where 20% of those funds or more need to go to kids that have fallen between the cracks. That leaves 80% that they can spend on environmental improvements and energy savings. Not for new construction, but for building maintenance. …
That would be 21 million bucks.
Every time I have heard either Dr. Brenner or Berge talk, they are not specific on this. They are getting 21 million here that they can spend on what those needs are. Maybe not everything to cover that, but a large portion would fall into this. … Now you’re just saying, OK, we’re getting all this money, but we’re going to take this highly controversial neighborhood issue and consolidate schools. Why? What’s the reason? Why not fix the two schools you’ve got that have the least amount of needs? They were slated for Phase 3. ...
If you’re broke, you’re broke. Let’s do something sensible here. This isn’t a one-time plan. If this doesn't pass, you know there will be another plan and there should be another plan
That’s why our signs say “demand better.” We need a better plan.
Herald: But what about the panel of 30 people who spent months investigating this?
Lindgren: They didn’t even visit Wilder and Winship. I live two blocks from the school and I never got a survey. My son lives in the neighborhood with three pre-school kids and no survey. I have asked the board about this and they said it was an open thing -- you can go to YouTube and watch these meetings. Well, I have better things to do.
I didn’t have a chance to have any input.
I just don’t get it. I don’t see the fiscal responsibility being shown here that you’re going to take two schools that will not suffer from lack of kids because there is single-family affordable housing in the neighborhood.
Berry: One thing I thought was interesting was in the (K-8 campus) pre-design committee meetings, they asked members to consider three questions: does it make sense for kids, does it make sense fiscally and does it make sense politically?
I really think the plan is a no for all three of those.
Does it make sense for kids? Not for the elementary school kids. I think an 1,100-student K-8 school is bad for many reasons.
Especially for Riverside and Near North kids, it’s not good for them due to safety. They will have a harder time getting to school and increased transportation costs for families.
Does it make sense fiscally? They are doing this to save $750,000 per year in operational savings. The new school is $64 million plus interest, so actually $82 million. So you’re spending $82 million in property tax money to build a school to replace $9.1 million in deferred maintenance. So I don’t think it makes sense fiscally
Does it make sense politically? I also think no. Just look at all the ‘vote no’ signs around town. It also goes opposite of what the city’s direction is for these neighborhoods and downtown. … There are hundreds of new housing units planned in the Wilder neighborhood over the past several years. With the focus on increased walkability downtown and increased density, I think it’s important to have Wilder still there.
Also, in the Grand Forks-East Grand Forks MPO’s 2045 land-use plan, two of the main priorities are walkability and safe routes to schools. I don’t see that anywhere in any of the district’s documents or documentation about this plan.
Rustad: Do you mind if I circle back to when you said the SitelogIQ plan was clunky?
It wasn't clunky. It was a train derailment, for a lot of reasons. Let me ask you: If you ran a multistate, huge business like SitelogIQ, would you devote multiple people and multiple resources to Grand Forks, N.D. for more than a year for $29,000?
The answer would be no. Because you’d take a massive loss.
So what was their reason? They expect to get the contract. If $29,000 gets you that kind of productivity, we should look to that company for all of our governmental issues in town.
It doesn't make any sense. I believe the whole thing was slimy.
Herald: Hypothetically, what if the new building is voted down but the mills are approved?
Lindgren: I would take the ESSER funds you can use for HVAC and energy efficient windows, or whatever it would be, and take the extra mills and … get some priorities identified and then fix the priorities. I would say see where that will get you and then come back and make a case for a new junior high. But let’s get some input. There was no input on this.
Herald: But the board and other proponents are going to deny that, though.
Lindgren: Then how did I not know about it until I saw it in the paper that they were going to move forward with consolidation of the schools, and I live two blocks from the schools?
How the hell are you supposed to know that? Come on.
Rustad: People cannot be expected to sit through those school board meetings.
Berry: The district has been doing a poor job of letting people know about this vote.
Herald: You’re obviously very much against the portion of the ballot that seeks to build a new school. But the other part of the ballot seeks to increase mills to raise money for various upgrades and maintenance. Are you going to vote for the mill increase portion of the proposal?
Lindgren: I am.
Rustad: I am not.
Berry: I am.