Grand Forks School Board gauges public interest in proposed school facility solutions – Grand Forks Herald

GRAND FORKS — Community members offered input on possible referendum questions that would impact the future of Valley and Schroeder middle schools at a public forum hosted by the Grand Forks School Board on Monday evening, March 28.

After a presentation by Superintendent Terry Brenner, who outlined some of the financial challenges and facility needs facing the school district, the audience broke into more than a dozen small groups, where discussions were led by School Board members, with notes recorded by school administrators.

“We want a broad variety of thoughts and ideas” that the board and district can consider, Brenner said. School leaders are considering another referendum, likely to take place this summer.

The district is seeking public input to gauge support for a $55 million referendum to build a new Valley Middle School on the current site. The referendum package would include construction of a new district-wide Child Nutrition facility, which currently is housed at Valley Middle School, but would likely be relocated adjacent to the Mark Sanford Education Center on the city’s south side.

Alternatively, the board and district administrators want to know if the public support a single middle-school referendum that would add $21 million to the $55 million referendum question, to address numerous upgrades at Schroeder Middle School.

Also, discussion revolved around the problem of elementary schools being at or nearly at capacity. Forum participants were asked whether they would support a referendum within the next five years to add onto an existing school or to build a new school.

About 270 people pre-registered for the forum, which was held at South Middle School.

In one of the breakout groups, Emily Johnson, the mother of two children who attend Kelly Elementary, agreed that Valley Middle School needs to be updated and is “overcrowded.”

“Depending on where you are, it’s either way too hot or really freezing,” Johnson said. “I think people move so they are not in that school (boundary) area.”

Megan Zell, a teacher who has two children attending Century Elementary, agreed, saying, “Investing in community schools is one of the best investments you can make.”

School Board member Cynthia Shabb said that, should the referendum pass, Valley would remain open until the new school is built on the property, to the west of the current site.

If the referendum is held and if it is successful, the estimated additional tax burden would be about $13 per month for the owner of the home valued at $250,000, Brenner told the group.

Brenner noted that the cost to replace Valley Middle School was about $42 million 18 months ago, but costs have increased significantly since then.

The district is planning to post a tax calculator on its website that will provide tax impact information based on an individual taxpayer’s home value, Shabb said.

Several in the group expressed concerns that students in the city’s north-side schools may not be receiving the same opportunities or advantages available to students in other parts of the city. Some schools provide inadequate facilities or accommodations for students with special needs. Viking Elementary, for example, has only one ADA-compliant bathroom, Principal Jolyn Bergstrom told the group.

Heidi Nordin, who has a child at Valley Middle School and two at Ben Franklin Elementary, said, “I am totally for a new Valley,” but cautioned that voters “will have to see an actual plan of what the school would look like to know what they’re getting for their money.”

Zell, and others in the group, said an extensive public relations campaign is needed to “help members of the community see why it would matter to them. I think that would take some time.”

If voters approve a referendum this summer to build a new Valley Middle School in June, it would open “in the fall ‘24 at the earliest, but probably in ‘25,” Brenner said.

Regarding elementary schools at or nearing capacity, Zell said she is more in favor of adding onto an existing school rather than building a new elementary school.

Student enrollment in Grand Forks public schools is expected to increase this fall from the current 7,404 to 7,581, according to the district’s demographer, Robert Schwarz, of Overland Park, Kansas. His firm, RSP and Associates, projects a peak of 7,588 in 2023-24, dipping slightly to 7,545 and 7,535 in the following two school years.

In other action, the Grand Forks School Board, at its regular meeting:

  • Voted to accept initial resolution for providing up to $16.5 million in general obligation building fund bonds. The bonded dollars would be used to focus on projects that improve indoor air quality, and safety and security. Schools that will be impacted, in terms of life safety measures, are: Ben Franklin, Century, Kelly, Lake Agassiz, Phoenix, Lewis and Clark, Viking, Wilder and Winship elementary schools; Grand Forks Central and Red River high schools, and the Mark Sanford Education Center. Schools impacted, in terms of indoor air quality, would be: Kelly, Lewis and Clark, and Wilder elementary schools.    
  • Voted to approve a recommendation from the district administration to approve the 2022-23 continuation grant narrative and budget justification for $3.5 million for the  Head Start Program. 
  • Voted to accept resignations of the following employees, effective June 3 – at Phoenix Elementary School: Ciera Bohm, fifth-grade teacher, and Annabel Rodriguez-Traverso, special education teacher; at Valley Middle School: Joshua Cichy and Christine Rokke, Title I coordinators; Andrew Glaser, school counselor; and LoRia Novak, library media specialist at Valley Middle School and Community High School; at Schroeder Middle School: Daniall Deis, special education teacher; at Twining School: Morgan Dontis, special education teacher; at Lake Agassiz Elementary School: Casey Kelley, special education teacher; at South Middle School, Sharen Sprague, English teacher; Lisa Berglund, second-grade teachers at Ben Franklin Elementary School, and for the district, Nicole Reybok, process facilitator and coach in special education. The resignations are effective June 3, except for Casey Kelley, whose resignation was effective March 18.