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West Elementary families 'sad and disappointed' about school closure decision, parent says

School's teachers and staff were "an amazing team" that ensured students' needs were met, said Radha Panini, co-leader of West PTO

West Elementary
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Third-grade student Surya Srivastava was so disappointed about the Grand Forks School Board’s recent decision to permanently close his school, West Elementary, he wrote a letter this week urging Superintendent Terry Brenner to keep it open.

“My son was really upset about West closing, and his classmates being sent off to different places, and he asked me if he could do anything,” said Radha Panini. “And I, kind of, didn’t have the heart to tell him it’s probably not going to amount to much, but for his sake, I sent the letter.

“He’s young enough that he’s still holding onto the hope that it won’t close, so it’s kind of sad.”

West Elementary has been closed this school year due to an unacceptable level of radon discovered in the building last spring, but many of its students and their families held out hope that it might reopen. West students and teachers were moved – with classrooms and teachers intact – to Discovery Elementary School for this school year.

On Monday, March 8, School Board members voted unanimously to close it permanently, based on a recommendation by the Facilities Task Force, which studied the district’s facility and financial challenges last year.

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Recent board and district administration discussion has focused on merging West, Winship and Wilder elementary schools and Valley Middle School into one K-8 campus on the Valley site. This recommendation, and others, emerged from the nine-month study by the task force and was presented to the School Board in December .

But 9-year-old Surya isn’t focused on that. In his letter to the superintendent, he listed 10 reasons West should reopen. Among them: “At West we all made memories and friends” and “Teachers, classmates and alumni love West.”

The school “means a lot to us because generations have been there (and it) has the best teachers, staff, and we are all a family,” he wrote. “I understand that the district can’t afford to keep West open, but please consider this. Please keep West open – it matters to all of us.”

The letter was signed by about 20 students and a teacher, Nadine Raymond, at West.

‘Disappointed’

In the email Panini sent to Brenner, along with her son’s letter, she said, “I know I speak for many West families when I say this – we are sad and disappointed.”

Disappointed, not only by the decision to close West, but by “the manner in which it was done,” she said. “A little over a year ago, the School Board passed a vote to keep the school open. After doing so, the district then slowly dismembered the school and broke it apart, piece by piece.”

During this school year, Panini said that some members of the West “family,” functioning within Discovery, have been lost, including their music and gym teachers – partly due to the COVID situation.

“My unhappiness or my disappointment was the fact they slowly kind of broke apart any sense of belonging by putting people in different places,” she told the Herald, “and then eventually it’s down to where we’re down to a few kids, a few teachers.”

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She recalled the School Board meeting about a year ago when parents and community members exhibited “a lot of support” for West and the board voted to include the school in the Facilities Task Force study, she said. And, since then, “I feel like they just kind of wore away at that.”

The task force, which held 23 meetings over nine months, was charged with examining the district’s facility and financial challenges and outlining solutions for board consideration.

More ‘upheaval’

With the “tumultuous changes” brought on by the pandemic this past year, students “will have to undergo yet another upheaval when their classes are torn apart,” Panini wrote to Brenner. “This pandemic has taught us that kids are resilient and will adjust to changes, but it has also shown that ‘adjusting’ is not enough – to thrive, they need to return to normal. For the West kids, ‘normal’ was their small school where their teachers and staff went above and beyond to meet all their needs – academic, social and emotional. West was, and still is, a school that the district and you as its superintendent should have been proud of, and invested COVID-19 relief dollars in, rather than tearing it down.”

Panini has high praise for West teachers.

“They knew each and every kid, and they knew the needs of each and every kid; it was an amazing team,” she told the Herald. “And they used to work together really really well, and worked together to ensure that kids going through the school, their needs are met.”

The West teachers “even now, they’re completely dedicated, and I’m sure they will do great, whichever school they go to,” Panini said. “It was something to be proud of, to have a school like that, a small neighborhood school.

“In this day and age, with all the COVID things going on, I think community is really important. And it was really nice to have a school that served the community, that had that feeling where it was a family. That’s my personal opinion, I think it would have been a good thing to go back to their own school – especially with this whole year – (to provide) some sense of normal.”

Cost prohibitive

When Brenner presented the school district’s recommendation to permanently close West at the School Board meeting March 8, he cited the cost of necessary infrastructure improvements, including $1.4 million to waterproof the exterior below-grade walls, install drain tile and drainage areas, and install a new heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system.

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Brenner also cited the school’s low enrollment, which the district demographer, Rob Swartz, has predicted would remain in the 80s for the next three years.

At the end of this school year, the present group of West students attending Discovery will total 23 students in grades 1-4, Brenner said. As of March 4, three kindergarten students in the West boundary area have registered for the 2021-22 school year. Those 26 students can be absorbed into Lake Agassiz and Winship elementary schools next year, he said.

Sixteen West students who live outside the West school’s boundary area – but attend West-Discovery through an in-district transfer – may attend their neighborhood school next year or apply for transfer to another school, except Kelly and Discovery, said Jody Thompson, associate superintendent of elementary education.

Currently, there are 18 West fifth-graders who will “graduate” and move on to middle school this fall, Brenner said.

In an email statement to the Herald, Brenner reiterated the process that led up to the final decision to close West, including various board meetings, workshops, school tours, the work of the Facility Task Force and "much discussion."

"All of the meetings were open to the public and updates of the Facility Task Force’s work were provided by SitelogIQ during School Board meetings," Brenner said.

Where next?

West students who live in the school’s boundary area may enroll at Lake Agassiz and Winship elementary schools, which are closest to West, for the next school year.

“They all could attend Winship, if they want,” Thompson told the School Board on March 8, but they won’t be allowed to continue at Discovery; that school and Kelly Elementary are full.

Each West teacher will have the opportunity to submit three preferred choices of schools to be reassigned, Thompson said. West staff members have asked for the same consideration, and Brenner indicated in a memo to the board that “we believe we can honor that request.”

The school district is surveying West parents and guardians on where they would prefer to send their student or students to school next year, according to Tracy Jentz, communications and community engagement coordinator.

Other than Panini, Thompson has not been contacted by other West parents about the West closure decision, Jentz said.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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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