There may be some irony in the result of the recent Grand Forks Public Schools referendum vote.
The two-part proposal sought to raise the mill levy to pay for upgrades at all campuses throughout the district, and also to approve an $86 million bond issue to build a K-8 school on the north end that would lead to closure of existing schools. The bond issue would have included about $22 million for other construction and facility improvement projects in the district.
Proponents urged passage of both to better educate students in healthier and safer environments. Instead, both proposals failed.
And the irony? That it might be the proponents themselves – and not necessarily future students – who learned a lesson.
Regarding the $86 million bond issue that would build a school and close others, there were 1,658 in favor and 3,758 against. Regarding the 10-mill increase for the district’s building fund, there were 2,942 yes votes and 2,476 no votes. Both required a 60% majority.
In a Herald report after the election, School Board President Amber Flynn and Superintendent Terry Brenner both acknowledged community engagement must improve if similar votes are brought forward in the future.
“I think people felt like the district didn’t do enough to inform them or communicate with them. I would own that we can always take a look at what we can control and … how we can engage the public in a better manner," Flynn said. "But I do believe, given the circumstances with COVID, we did a good job of having information available to the public. Again, we can always do better, but there’s a back-and-forth engagement that needs to happen.”
Brenner believes more face-to-face community engagement would have provided better opportunities to explain the details of the referendum, and especially what it would mean for all schools in the district.
As reported by the Herald’s Pamela Knudson last week, Brenner and Flynn said the vote outcome offers an opportunity to capitalize on public interest and use it to engage in broader conversations to find a better solution to the district’s challenges.
There’s the lesson for us all: More conversation will be needed if any sort of school plan will pass in the future.
There is public interest in both proposals. With 5,423 votes cast, it’s obvious many in Grand Forks are vested in the district’s decisions.
It seems unlikely the plan to consolidate and build new on the north end will return, at least in anything resembling its present form. But there is hope with the nearly approved proposal to increase the mill levy to raise money to pay for needed improvements and upgrades at schools throughout the city.
This should be pursued again, sooner than later.
After last week’s setback, district leadership appears to understand the importance of more community conversations, face-to-face meetings and surveys if they hope to move forward with another proposal.
But remember: This isn’t a one-way process. As Flynn rightly said, “there’s a back-and-forth engagement that needs to happen.”
Residents must understand that their level of engagement will help shape the future. Whatever plan comes next, concerned residents must attend meetings and reciprocate the effort.