Kathy Gershman
Kathy Gershman

Well everybody, here we go again.

A large educational entity in Grand Forks defers building maintenance for years, then has its consultants describe the cost/benefit of renovating versus “building new.” And when its voting or campus constituency complains, this educational entity will quickly blame the state Legislature for imposing constraints on their budget.

Thirty-five years ago the voters of Grand Forks learned that a plan was afoot to tear down Central High School and build a mega school on the west edge of the city. The cost was estimated at $28 million versus $8.5 million to renovate the original building. In 1984 residents formed a committee to “save Central.” I knew one of the co-chairs rather well, a youngish fellow who was the first president of the Riverside Neighborhood Association (convened originally during the 1979 flood recovery). Hal Gershman and this committee, with the total support of Superintendent Dr. Mark Sanford, conducted a wide-reaching, not to say relentless, campaign to get out the “yes” vote on a bond issue to renovate Central High. Bond measures require the public’s approval by more than 60%. This initiative passed by a whopping 81%, the largest bond vote plurality in state history.

I ask you to consider for a moment the look and feel of downtown Grand Forks without that magnificent old school, recently named the most beautiful in our state.

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Belmont School, the 19th century building on the corner of Belmont Avenue and Fourth Avenue South burned down immediately after the flood of 1997. Once again the plan surfaced not to rebuild it but instead move the students to a new school to be built further south, combining enrollments from another school. The Near South Side neighborhood fought to keep its school and (with the help of federal flood recovery funds) the magnificent Phoenix School was built right on the old Belmont School corner. That choice saved Grand Forks’ oldest housing stock from guaranteed decline.

Wilder School on Gateway Drive was coming on the chopping block not very long ago, after a committee that studied it cited declining enrollment numbers. Neighbors were able to show that the Riverside Park neighborhood had dozens of pre-kindergarten age children a year or so away from enrollment. Wilder today is full, bustling and thriving.

The West School is the newest school threatened with closure. Neighbors and parents are once again making emotional pleas to save it at School Board meetings. Their neighborhood, with singular amenities such as a gorgeous park on one side and the university campus within walking distance on the other (not to mention real estate prices within reach of a growing family’s budget), would surely be negatively impacted by losing its school.

Central, Belmont, Wilder, West: All very good schools cherished by children, parents and alumni. Yes, of course, they need improvements! We who want to keep schools in neighborhoods are not naïve; school reform is expensive and upkeep is – or should be – constant. Surely we have learned that to defer maintenance is to slowly condemn a building. So why are the people with power of the purse so quick to defer it? Why not make an investment in a school that is both practical, creative and forward looking? And why are Grand Forks city leaders not up in arms at the prospect of seeing taxable real estate values nose-diving?

I should add that my particular area of educational interest is small schools, so I am inclined, first, to see their benefits. I won’t cite here the vast amount of research demonstrating the benefit to students of small schools. In sum it is this: large school size increases student-teacher ratios, a factor we see in decreasing student achievement.

For people seduced by the bells and whistles at the newer schools, I say those amenities can be accomplished by investing generously in neighborhood schools. We would see then a triple return: educational progress, cultural well-being for a given neighborhood, and above all, an emotional security for the children, attending their own school.

I know public servants feel acutely the responsibility of spending the public’s money. Nevertheless, as this discussion goes forward next month I hope to see more frank talk about what is good for the children’s education and less of the cost comparisons. Over time the former is far more important than the latter.

Kathy Gershman, Ed.D., is a retired UND professor of educational foundations and research.