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Our view: More time before voting is the prudent path forward on school proposal

Moving it to November probably will mean more people will weigh in on the issue – a good thing with a proposal this big – but it also will give the district time to present every possible piece of information while allowing the voters a corresponding amount of time to digest and critique every aspect of the plan before making an informed decision.

Herald pull quote, 4/9/22
Herald graphic
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Are Grand Forks residents interested in spending $55 million to build a new middle school and child nutrition center? And are the city’s residents ready to make that decision just eight weeks from now?

Put us down for a “maybe” on the first question and a hard “no” on the second. So it was good to see the Grand Forks School Board this week decide to delay the vote until later – probably in conjunction with Election Day in November. Moving it to November probably will mean more people will weigh in on the issue – a good thing with a proposal this big – but it also will give the district time to present every possible piece of information while allowing the voters a corresponding amount of time to digest and critique every aspect of the plan before making an informed decision.

At present, the idea is to build a new Valley Middle School on the current site of that north-end school while also building a new nutrition facility – today’s fancy term for school kitchen – that likely would be located on the city’s south end, near the Mark Sanford Education Center. The price for it all comes in around $55 million. Another proposal calls for up to $76 million in spending, to also make upgrades at Schroeder Middle School, but we see that as a hill too steep to climb, considering a failed vote last year.

One more wrinkle to consider: Board seats are up for election in June. It would be best to wait until new board members are seated before moving ahead with such a large proposal.

Some early discussions proposed voting June 11 but on Monday, April 4, the board wisely opted to push it to November.

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“We need to get our message out and make sure it’s simplified,” Eric Lunn, board president, said during a meeting earlier this week. “It’s too tall a task to get it done by June.” He suggests “a communication plan that’s not just about a middle school, but all schools.”

And Amber Flynn, vice president of the board, said more clarity is needed, “not just about schools, but the education piece. There’s a lot of communication that needs to be defined better. We need to tell our story more.”

This is a good approach and one that will, if nothing else, begin the process on a foundation of trust rather than suspicion. In 2021, Grand Forks voters killed a proposal that would have closed two north-end schools and created a new K-8 campus at the Valley Middle School site, as well as raised taxes to make improvements at schools throughout the district. In the weeks before the vote, a group of residents claimed the decision to move forward was hasty and based on questionable information. Further – and perhaps most important – they claimed the School Board pushed ahead on the plan without enough community input.

The vote to build a new school campus and make other facility improvements throughout the district – at that time an $86 million proposal – was overwhelmingly defeated, 3,758 to 1,658.

Perhaps the new proposal – and its considerably lower price tag – has a chance. Meanwhile, voters must wrap their heads around what appears to be an undeniable fact: As buildings decay and age beyond modern capabilities, big repairs and new schools are in this community’s future. Maybe a few extra months’ time can help the board convince voters of that.

Either way, the board must do whatever it can to avoid claims that information was suppressed, the proposal was rushed and the community wasn’t included in discussions.

What to read next
In a report this week in the Grand Forks Herald, the owner of the Drayton, North Dakota, Valley News & Views said that if a buyer isn’t found by next month, the weekly publication will close so she can focus on her health.
Whereas longtime elected officials do gain power with their longevity, they also gain valuable experience that cannot be quickly absorbed by newcomers.