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What is the right size to learn?

For Larry Nybladh, Grand Forks School District superintendent, how to solve the problem of some schools having room to spare while others are crowded, boils down to one question: "Do we restructure or do we continue to subsidize inefficiency?"...

Larry Nybladh
Grand Forks Schools Superintendent Larry Nybladh. (Herald file photo by John Stennes).

For Larry Nybladh, Grand Forks School District superintendent, how to solve the problem of some schools having room to spare while others are crowded, boils down to one question: "Do we restructure or do we continue to subsidize inefficiency?"

Meeting with the Herald's editorial board Thursday, he said enrollment in the district has been steadily falling since 1995, when it peaked at nearly 10,000, but the number of buildings has remained the same.

As the city grows south, while north-side growth stagnates, it creates differences in school capacity, the amount of students each can educate. Generally, north-end schools have greater capacity, and it is less to the south.

"Century Elementary is the largest and the most south-end school. Wilder is the smallest," he said. About 600 students attend Century; 75 attend Wilder.

The Demographic Task Force, assembled in November by the district, has been considering various ways to reorganize schools to increase efficiency in response to steady enrollment decline.


Options include re-drawing school boundaries, closing or repurposing schools and building new schools.

Since 1995, Wilder's enrollment has declined 63 percent, Nybladh said, while Century's declined 11 percent. However, in the past three years, Century has seen a 21 percent jump in enrollment, or 103 students.

"The question becomes, 'How small is too small?'" he said. "The literature is not conclusive on that. But we believe at least 150 students is desirable."

A group of parents have met with Nybladh and Assistant Superintendent Jody Thompson to express concerns about Wilder's future.

The Near North Neighborhood Association also has encouraged parents of children attending Wilder to contact the School Board and voice their concerns.

"The NNNA believes in the value of neighborhood schools, and is working with parents to ensure that our school stays open," the organization wrote in an email Thursday to neighborhood residents.

Nybladh said he and Thompson also are planning to meet with parents of West Elementary students.

Reports in January


Thompson and Brad Towers, local restaurant owner, co-chair the 30-member task force.

The group plans to present a preliminary report to the School Board on Jan. 9. A public forum is set Jan. 23.

If the school board decides on a school's closure, district administrators said that decision should be finalized in March, at the latest, because of the time needed to prepare a closure plan.

The closure would be effective in fall 2012, Thompson said.

If that happens, layoffs would be unlikely, due to the district's large size, Nybladh said. Staff reductions, if necessary, could be made by attrition, and employees may be reassigned.

"The community and those we serve need a decision," Nybladh said.

From 1995 to 2010, Grand Forks school enrollment declined from 9,900 to 6,750, a drop of nearly 32 percent, he said.

During that time, enrollment at the two Grand Forks Air Force Base schools, with kindergarten through eighth-grade, fell from almost 1,600 to 335, a drop of nearly 79 percent.


Over the years, the district made adjustments and right-sized in order to reduce inefficiencies, Nybladh said, "but at some point, you have to make adjustments."

Grand Forks saw its highest enrollment, about 12,700, in 1970 when baby boomers' children populated the schools.

The district's greatest concern is retaining quality staff, Nybladh said. "If you look at any research on educational quality or reform, you'll see that effective teachers are critical."

The district includes two high schools, an alternative high school, four middle schools, 12 elementary schools and a Head Start program.

The school board meets at 6 tonight and the Demographic Task Force meets at noon Tuesday, both at the Mark Sanford Education Center. Both meetings are open to the public, and time has been set aside for public comments.

The NNNA will also be holding a meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at The Y Family Center to discuss the preservation of Wilder.

Herald staff writer Brandi Jewitt contributed to this report.



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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