On Sept. 28, Grand Forks voters again will be asked to consider raising taxes to help pay for a mounting list of maintenance needs at schools across the community.
Specifically, the plan seeks to increase mills – a unit used to determine taxing – from 10 to 20, thereby raising approximately $2.5 million annually for projects and upkeep at the district’s 17 school buildings.
In June, a majority – 54% – of voters approved the idea, but it failed to reach the requisite 60% needed to pass. That election also included a related, and unpopular, question: Whether to close schools on the city’s north end and consolidate K-8 students into a new building.
Now, voters are being asked to only reconsider the proposed mill increase. For the sake of the city’s schools, and after the Herald’s editorial board met with a contingent of school leaders, we urge a “yes” vote.
The district’s to-do list continues to mount.
The district has somewhere around $80 million in deferred maintenance, but as much as a quarter of a billion dollars in eventual infrastructure needs, according to district projections.
“The list continues to get longer each week,” said Chris Arnold, the district’s building and grounds director. “As we plan out for deferred maintenance, we have to account for inflation, and the longer we put things out into the future, the more these things are going to cost us money.”
The average age of local schools is 54; and while the maintenance list is long and includes numerous physical deficiencies, there are a number of issues with handicap accessibility, fire suppression, security and air conditioning, too.
The district is dipping into its general fund for maintenance.
“Right now, any major construction project is really being funded through the general fund,” said Scott Berge, the district’s business manager. “And really, the intent of the general fund dollars is student learning, compensation, etc. Over the last five to six years, we have spent probably around $12 million out of the general fund for major construction. ...”
Said Eric Lunn, president of the School Board: “Conservatively (estimating), we have been taking $2.5 million out of the general fund (annually) to pay for facilities. That’s money that we can’t spend on programs and people.”
Yes, taxes will increase, but it won’t be a heavy lift.
The 10 mill increase on a $250,000 home would equate to $9.38 additional tax per month, Berge said.
Also, Grand Forks is behind its big-city counterparts in school tax burden. According to data provided by the district, schools here receive 31% of property tax collections; the cut is much higher in Bismarck (46%), Minot (40%), West Fargo (46%) and Fargo (53%). Even if the proposal passes, Grand Forks schools’ share will only rise to 33%.
At present, Grand Forks’ levy of 10 mills is about half or less of the levies in comparable cities.
The district is working to get the word out about the upcoming vote.
A 15-minute informational video, archived on the district’s website, includes numerous informational slides and a voiceover. Superintendent Terry Brenner has spoken to various civic service organizations and has held virtual meetings over the internet. And from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23, there will be an open house at all district schools. Principals will be available to show infrastructure needs and answer questions.
Even some of the very vocal opponents of Question 1 in the June election were in favor of Question 2.
In June, the first question on the ballot – an $86 million proposal to build new and consolidate on the north end – was widely panned in the days leading up to the election. But many of those vocal opponents were in favor of the ballot’s second question, which is what residents will again consider on Sept. 28.
“I think there is more support for (the 10-mill increase),” Brenner said. “We’re not talking about building consolidations at this point, and we’re not talking about an $86 million referendum to (build new). We’re just focusing on one single issue and that’s to have a maintenance fund so (the building and grounds staff) can do their work. There is plenty of work to do in our existing facilities. The $2.5 million isn’t going to catch us up, but it’s going to at least allow us to reset and move forward.”