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Our view: Does recent election foreshadow the direction of big decisions in the Grand Forks School District?

The new members, whose terms start July 1, come on as the nine-member board arrives at a precipice of important school decisions – controversial ones that could leave a notable footprint in the community.

Herald pull quote, 6/18/2022
Herald graphic
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Does Tuesday’s Grand Forks School Board election indicate growing public support for difficult and historic decisions to be made with the district’s aging buildings and infrastructure?

Perhaps.

The new members are Dave Berger, Monte Gaukler, Joel Larson and Josh Anderson. Incumbent Bill Palmiscno retained his seat in the 23-person race for the five positions.

The new members, whose terms start July 1, come on as the nine-member board arrives at a precipice of important school decisions – controversial ones that could leave a notable footprint in the community.

Among them is the push to raise $55 million to build a new Valley Middle School on the city’s north side. A citywide vote is planned in September.

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All of the new members told the Herald, prior to the election, that they support the effort. The candidates who declared they were not in favor of the referendum lost on Tuesday.

Also, four of the five winners told the Herald that teacher retention/recruitment is among the biggest issues facing the district.

Of the five winners, none mentioned lack of transparency by the board, poor district leadership or concerns about gender identity or alleged Critical Race Theory curriculum. The candidates who cited those issues as top concerns all lost.

Further, it’s inevitable that discussions will someday begin anew about possibly closing aging schools on the north side. It’s a powderkeg issue, discussed a number of times over the years but quashed by public outcry, especially among those who live in those northern neighborhoods.

Interestingly, when the Herald asked for candidates’ views on aging schools and, particularly, neighborhood schools, all five of those who later won discussed district finances or noted that difficult decisions may need to be made. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in favor of someday closing those schools, but their answers also didn’t wholeheartedly support keeping them open at all costs, either.

For example:

Anderson: “... Some large challenges, and in turn decisions, around the number of facilities, overall facility failure and community growth need to be made. Data and input have been provided and now decisions need to be made.”

Berger: “Ultimately, we need to keep our current financial situation and budget projections in mind as we make the best decisions possible for our kids.”

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Gaukler: “I understand the value of neighborhood schools and I support small class sizes. Figuring out how to do this in a fiscally responsible way is one of the key tasks of the School Board. When this conversation is brought up, I think it is important to have all voices at the table and listen to all points of view. Then and only then will the right and prudent decision be made for the school district.”

Larson: “There are some very difficult choices that will need to be made regarding school repairs or rebuilding and I will consider all voices and the perspectives of each person that the decisions will impact.”

Palmiscno: “Continue to monitor enrollment at all schools, and case-by-case decisions are made as needed. I don't advocate or oppose but hard decisions may be needed in the future.”

Universally, the candidates who showed strong support of the small north-side schools lost in Tuesday’s election.

Does all of this point to how school district patrons really feel about spending, neighborhood schools and other big issues? For now, it’s just speculation – or possibly a coincidence.

But it’s also possible it foreshadows the direction we’re headed on some controversial topics.

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