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Parents express concerns about Grand Forks school facilities plan

Parents of children who attend Wilder Elementary School are concerned about Grand Forks School Board discussion of possible closure of north end elementary schools--and the negative impact closures could have on the future vibrancy of that area o...

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Parents of children who attend Wilder Elementary School are concerned about Grand Forks School Board discussion of possible closure of north end elementary schools-and the negative impact closures could have on the future vibrancy of that area of the city.

Several of them, in a Friday meeting with the Herald editorial board, said they wondered what's driving the closure discussion.

"Why are we even looking at this?" said Shannon Mikula, who lives in the Riverside neighborhood. "It's not budget-driven. It's not enrollment-driven."

Justin and Whitney Berry, who live in the Riverside neighborhood and who have a child attending Wilder and two older children, say they went through a similar scenario six years ago when a demographic study group considered closures of Wilder, West and Winship elementary schools, due to dwindling enrollments.

The study group determined then that none of those schools should be closed because enrollments were predicted to rebound, which they did, and that a new elementary school should be built on the city's south side, which led to construction of Discovery.


In the past 10 months or so, the JLG Architects firm, which was hired by the School Board to conduct an assessment of school district facilities, has developed a master facilities plan that includes options to close West, Wilder, Winship, and Lewis and Clark elementary schools.

"We feel like, here we go again," Justin Berry said. "We're kind of surprised that these options are coming out of nowhere, especially when this was looked at by the board only six years ago."

Mikula, whose two young children are not yet in elementary school, said as she's gathered more information, she has "become increasingly concerned" about the focus on school closures.

"I'm concerned about what this is going to do to the community character of this end of town," Mikula said.

The reason she and her husband, who moved here from Colorado, bought a home in Riverside was the established nature of the neighborhood and its proximity to Wilder, Mikula said.

She and other Wilder parents said they like that their children can, and do, walk to school.

"I think there's a misconception (among Board members) that no kids walk to school" in Grand Forks, said Whitney Berry.

"A lot of kids walk to Wilder ... and to Valley (Middle School)," where another of the Berry children is enrolled, Justin Berry said.


"In 2005, Riverside was full of empty-nesters. Wilder had some 70 students," he said. Now the neighborhood is filled with young families and the school's enrollment "is 170 to 180."

"I think people in other parts of town don't understand the impact (closures) would have," Whitney Berry said. "These decisions will have a huge impact on a vast area of the community."

"Closing schools would be detrimental to all of these neighborhoods on the north end of the city," her husband said.

They also do not believe that a larger school, with an enrollment of 750, for example, would provide a better education than their children are receiving in a small school with fewer than 200 students.

Justin Berry also questioned whether the School Board is communicating with the city and county about plans for development.

"The MPO has stated that safety and walkability are important" to the quality of life here, he said.

Further, Whitney Berry said, "I'm a little uncomfortable about a consultant (JLG) that would potentially be hired to build a new school" creating the facilities master plan.

While the School Board has expressed an interest in achieving educational "equity," meaning that students throughout the district receive the same quality of education, the Wilder parents question that reasoning.


"I have yet to hear somebody who wants a 'Discovery of the north,' if it means shutting down a school," said Justin Berry.

"There's an assumption that we want something different," said Gretchen Kindseth. "We like what we have."

Some of the parents expressed concern that decisions are being made or will be made before sufficient public input is gathered.

"It seems like there's a push to get this done before the superintendent retires-and before the next (school) board elections," Justin Berry said.

The public forum, where the master facilities plan will be the focus of discussion, is set for Jan. 22 at South Middle School.

At its next regular meeting, on Monday, the Grand Forks School Board will discuss plans for the forum and receive a report from its Facilities Committee. The meeting begins at 6 p.m. at the Mark Sanford Education Center, 2400 47th Ave. S.

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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