Grand Forks School Board questions student information requests, discusses tax levy

GRAND FORKS – The decision whether to provide student information to third-party organizations for purposes of educational recruitment raised questions at Monday’s Grand Forks School Board meeting.

“Where does it end for activities and religious groups?” Amber Flynn, vice president of the Grand Forks School Board, asked. “It becomes a big lift for our staff to have to ask for this information all the time. I trust that the district is screening what it’s asking for, but I don’t know what all of that entails.”

At present, only three third-party organizations are actively petitioning the district for access to student information. These include local military recruiters, an ACT prep organization called “Doorway to College” and a youth basketball club named “Fast Break.”

Superintendent Terry Brenner and Executive Secretary Cindy Johnson stressed that all requests must be approved by the board, pursuant to the North Dakota Century Code. Furthermore, requests will be limited to educationally relevant organizations.

“In the protection of student data, requests must have a legitimate educational interest,” Johnson said. “With the school district also having athletics available to their students, and feeling that is important to their education, that is where our legal counsel has felt we can give their information to Fast Break.”

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While board members agreed that the aforementioned organizations have an educationally relevant reason to request student information, they raised questions concerning the allowable duration that the information may be held.

“Is it for a specific period of time? Is it one academic year and the ask comes back to us for a review? Is it the understanding that once an organization has been given access, it’s in perpetuity?” board member Dave Berger asked.

Johnson responded that due to the novelty of the program, the district’s legal team will ponder these questions prior to approving or rejecting further requests.

Also Monday, Brandon Baumbach, business manager of Grand Forks Public Schools, presented the district’s 2022-23 tax levy. The proposed 111.00 mill levy is unchanged from 2021-22. Of that, 79% of the mill levy’s budget comprises employee salaries, 19% for construction related materials and the remaining 2% for utility costs.

Michael Venaccio, a longtime Grand Forks resident and taxpayer, expressed concerns about the lack of state funding for the mill levy.

“I’ve been paying taxes in this county since 1989. I’ve been paying local taxes for the past 21 years,” said Venaccio. “What I don’t see by any school boards is an attempt to ask for more funds at the state level. They pass it downward. I’m 75 and on a fixed income. My question becomes, what are we looking at for alternate funding to give the seniors in this community some tax relief?”

Brenner said the board is represented on Team Grand Forks, which meets personally with Gov. Doug Burgum's office in Bismarck, to discuss issues of local taxation. Brenner cited lower oil revenues relative to years past as a reason for decreased per-pupil funding.

“Back in 2013, when the state was extracting barrels of oil ad infinitum, legislators said we will fund 80% of education,” said Brenner. “That’s a stark contrast to funding at 60%. If they were still doing that today, our per-pupil funding would be well over $12,000. Instead, it’s $10,200. The push then, is at the local taxing level.”

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Other news from Monday's meeting:

Ivona Todorovic, English Language instructor at Red River High School, was honored by the board for being named North Dakota Teacher of the Year. Todorovic, accompanied by members of her family, thanked the board members for their support, and read a speech outlining her journey as an educator.The district’s annual compliance report was approved by all 17 principals.The superintendent evaluation committee approved a motion for Brenner’s evaluation process. Brenner will provide a narrative on how to accomplish set goals, and the committee will meet periodically to discuss his progress.

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