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'Very exciting time': New school for Grand Forks 1st since '98

Grand Forks has been resurrected from the Flood of '97, and it's growing. As the Grand Forks School District begins planning for the first new elementary school since Phoenix opened in 1998 just south of downtown, that's how Larry Nybladh, Grand ...

Grand Forks has been resurrected from the Flood of '97, and it's growing.

As the Grand Forks School District begins planning for the first new elementary school since Phoenix opened in 1998 just south of downtown, that's how Larry Nybladh, Grand Forks School Superintendent, sums up what he calls "a very exciting time."

The past birthrate data suggests that the number students entering elementary school will increase 14.4 percent, or by 550, over the next five years. And those projections don't take into account potential new residents attracted by the city's strong economy.

The School Board voted Feb. 27 to build a new, 300-student-capacity school on the city's far south side. The move is meant to relieve enrollment pressure at Century and Kelly elementary schools and to accommodate potential growth in residential housing in that area. The school would probably also spur growth.

"I kind of hate to use this phrase, but 'If you build it they will come,'" Nybladh said.


The new school, estimated to cost $10 million, would open in fall 2014 under current plans.

Looking ahead to the planning of the new school, the Herald asked district officials a few questions, answered below:

How and when will the building site be determined?

The district currently owns to parcels bought long ago as "place holders" when land in the south end was cheap.

The parcel along Belmont Road is too far east and has homes that are generally less affordable, which tends not to draw young families with school-age children, Nybladh said.

The one close to South Middle School is too close and, when the two schools let out, traffic could get very congested, he said.

The best place for a new school is in an area where affordable, single-family homes, twin homes and town houses are expected to be built, he said. City planners Columbia Road will be one of those areas, he said, and the district hopes to do some trading with landowners there.

"A new school is an incredible magnet for residential development, particularly for family housing," he said. "From the developers' viewpoint, they look at where they can get the most return on investment."


The School District is also talking with the Park District, which has a long history of co-locating parks with schools.

Bill Palmiscno, the Parks District's superintendent of recreation, said the district gets many of its parks by way of a law that requires 8 percent of any new residential subdivision to be set aside as park land.

School District officials will likely recommend a site to the School Board in the spring.

How will educational trends influence building design?

- A "media center" will replace the library as the hub of a school, providing not only books, but CDs, new learning technologies and access to Web-based educational material, according to Nybladh.

- Stand-alone computer labs may not be needed because the district is going wireless as more digital devices access the Web that way and more students are getting those devices. This should save tax dollars on wiring.

- The school would offer more meeting spaces where small groups of students can work with a teacher or small groups of teachers can meet. This is an emerging trend in education.

- The school would be built to accommodate future expansion and will have an oversized core area with offices and cafeteria. The initial 300-capacity wing will hook on to this core. The second 300-capacity wing will also hook on when built.


How will the school be named?

There's been no discussion about naming, Nybladh said, but district officials will recommend a process to the School Board in the future.

In the past, parents and students in Phoenix and Century elementary schools' attendance areas were invited to submit potential names and vote on the top four or five. The School Board picked the winning name.

How will the public provide input?

The public will have several opportunities, between November and March, to review and comment when design plans are presented at School Board meetings, Nybladh said.

An open house will also be scheduled.

How will the School District build the school without new taxes?

The School District is in an enviable position of carrying a low debt-load, according to Nybladh.


It used federal stimulus dollars on several projects, such as roof repairs and other improvements, that would otherwise have required local tax dollars.

Debt on improvements to Lake Agassiz Elementary School was paid off last year. Debt on the new Red River High School theater, Cushman Field and Central High's heating and cooling system are scheduled to be paid off by 2014.

"Direct stimulus monies helped us pay for projects that were on our to-do list," Nybladh said. "That gave us the extra capacity" to take on the new-school project.

As the city's tax base expands -- existing housing will appreciate and new housing will come on the tax rolls-- the School District expects its income to rise.

What about Measure 2?

If passed, the measure would abolish property taxes, including the School District's.

"We'd have to adopt a kind of water-treading pattern," Nybladh said. "The uncertainty of the outcome of passing the measure is fairly significant," he said, "and likely would have an impact on a project like this."

Still, any decision to hire an architect won't come until after the June elections so the School District won't be committing to build before it knows how it will pay for the new school.


Has there been much negative feedback to adding a new school?

"I have received none at all personally," Nybladh said. Negative comments on local talk-radio programs have been minimal, he said.

When people consider the current growth of the city and projected growth in school enrollment, as well as the fact that the district can afford the project without raising property tax rates, he said, they generally understand the need for a new school. "It's a positive place to be, and quite rare position for a school district."

Reach Knudson at (701) 780-1107; (800) 477-6572, ext. 107; or send e-mail to pknudson@gfherald.com .

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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