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Published June 11 2009

Forum editorial: Vote reveals West. Fargo’s identity problems

The nearly even split in Tuesday’s West Fargo school bond vote reveals a tale of two cities. One is “old West Fargo,” defined as a small town, which, by the way, has long since gone away. The other, which can be described as “new West Fargo,” is not encumbered by history or tradition and has embraced a city on the grow. Another overlapping cohort is made up of West Fargo and West Fargo School District residents who are torn between old and new.

The results of the vote also showed a geographical divide that mirrors old and new West Fargo. Most of the support for the $65 million school building and renovation proposal came from new neighborhoods south of Interstate 94, including Horace. The measure needed a 60 percent “yes” vote to pass, and got that level of support in those areas.

Conversely, neighborhoods to the north, including Harwood, did not come close to the 60 percent needed to pass.

What happened? In addition to the old-new divide, most of the proposed school improvements were targeted to the south neighborhoods. While that factor might have doomed the plan in northern, older areas, it made sense because the district’s growth has been – and will be – primarily in the south.

Second, old West Fargo, which is wedded to its Packer identity, was not ready for a second high school. That sentiment is rooted in entrenched tradition and the town’s long-gone meat-packing industry. It’s an emotional tilt that has little to do with what is good for students in the long run.

Third, grumbling about the cost of the proposal took two forms: too much money and not specific enough. A related factor was that the state school property tax break would have been smaller for property owners in the school district because part of the break would have been siphoned off to pay for new schools. Since rising property taxes have been at the top of voters’ agendas, the prospect that a tax cut would not be as big as expected had to have some effect on voters.

As if to underscore West Fargo’s evolving identity, a voter interviewed at the polls said she “just didn’t want West Fargo to become a big city.” Well, folks, that ship has sailed. City and school leaders can’t boast about residential/commercial development, new highway intersections and growing school enrollment and then expect West Fargo to be seen as a small town. The school district is among the top five in enrollment in the state. By any honest measure, that’s not small-town. And as Tuesday’s vote demonstrated, the schools will be most affected by the city’s identity contradictions.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.