Tax increase, public criticism put Grand Forks School Superintendent Larry Nybladh in public eye in 2013
Grand Forks school Superintendent Larry Nybladh is the Herald's Newsmaker of the Year for 2013.
The distinction serves as recognition of a person's role in an important story that happened during the year. As the top administrator in the district, which struggled with a budget deficit, tax increase and taxpayers' ire in 2013, Nybladh fit the description as someone who sparked discussion and change in the area.
Grand Forks Public Schools Superintendent Larry Nybladh said one of his biggest goals for the next year is to have the public understand he's more than just the public face of the school district.
Weary of personal attacks, he expressed his desire recently to be seen as a person.
It has been an eventful year for Nybladh.
The school district he leads struggled with a projected $5.4 million deficit for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, which he said was perhaps the largest deficit the district has ever seen.
But what brought the issue to the public's attention was the School Board's proposed 28.6 percent increase in the property tax rate, which came after state lawmakers had approved property tax reductions.
The Herald chose Nybladh as its Newsmaker of the Year because, as the School Board's spokesman, he found himself at the center of the controversy as he addressed the budget crisis and explained it to an angry public.
Some area residents called for him and the board to step down. "At last, property tax relief came down from the state. But now, Grand Forks Schools Superintendent Larry Nybladh and the school board want to rip us off," said one letter to the Herald editor.
Other critics complained that Nybladh and the board were tight-lipped about the budget and the tax increase.
Being a target for the public is assumed and expected, and it comes with the territory, he said in an interview last week. "But the School Board makes policies and it's my job to carry them out, and sometimes, that gets lost," he said.
The board has since approved a 21.6 percent increase and $1.02 million in cuts that were suggested by employees.
Nybladh views the experience of weathering a budget crisis as healthy for school districts because it forces leaders to struggle and reflect on what their priorities are, he said.
"It's really caused us to take a good look in the mirror and seek out greater cost effectiveness in our operation," he said.
The financial challenges the district has faced this year, along with the public response, have prompted it to continually "refine" its approach to education and communication, he said. Administrators had already been working on this as part of the district's future goals, he said.
The School Board has also created a finance committee to ensure it has a better understanding of the financial information it's expected to explain to the public, he said.
Nybladh asked the public for a little more understanding. An organization like a school district requires support, and its leadership is trying hard to do a good job, he said.
The public should realize there's a lot more complexity to the district than the tax and budget problems that have been highlighted so often this year, he said. And there are other influences at the federal and state level that affects the district, he said.
"I'm not trying to minimize the issues," he said. "I also know there's a lot of other things going on. That's even true in my life as a community member."
Nybladh has long maintained the deficit was due to the loss of federal aid, rapid student enrollment growth and costs that come with that, which the district had to pay for without state funding, he said.
The district was in a unique position, he said. After 16 years of declining enrollment, it experienced a period of growth that the current state-aid funding system doesn't support, he said. A House bill that would have provided more state aid for growing schools like Grand Forks failed during the 2013 session.
Still, the school district's critics say the funding formula in place today has been in place since 2009.
State lawmakers who voted for property tax relief also weighed in, asking the School Board to listen to voters, as Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, and Rep. Lois Delmore, D-Grand Forks, did in September in a letter to the editor.
Nybladh said the district's deficit has been intensified by the federal budget sequestration and loss of other federal aid.
The School Board was appreciative of the Legislature's focus during the last session on property tax relief, but legislators have to recognize how growth affects local districts, he said. It's not just a major problem in Grand Forks, it's statewide, he said.
Nybladh advocated for more state funding as a member of a state superintendent coalition, but wants legislators and the governor to take a closer look at it, he said.
"What (growth) does to districts like ours is cause a tax shift," he said. "If the state isn't paying a single dime for those (new) students, which they're not, then we have to find that money from someplace and it can only come from property taxes."
From the experience this year, Nybladh said he's learned that he and the School Board "need to find more effective ways to communicate the district's circumstances to our citizens, to our legislators and to the media."
A School Board job review Nybladh faced in December suggested as much, though other areas of his leadership received more positive marks.
Efforts to improve communication are underway, he said. Improvements to the district's website, social media and other efforts will continue this year, he said. The district also has been providing more information to parents and staff.
"As an organization, I think we're really trying to be introspective and research-based in our strategies of how we can more effectively communicate," he said.
Nybladh expressed optimism about the future.
Grand Forks teachers and staff are dedicated to giving students the best education, he said.
"If we're being intentional in taking this hard look at ourselves in trying to be better, our future will be better," he said.
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