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Matt Von Pinnon, Published November 15 2009

Von Pinnon: Schools must get support from homes without kids

Is this the beginning of the end for our area’s historically strong K-12 public education system?

I’ve been unable to shake that thought since my hometown of Moorhead narrowly voted down an operating levy that would have boosted the district’s budget by $5.25 million a year, or $850 per student.

Moorhead’s vote came five months after West Fargo failed to achieve the

60 percent threshold of “yes” votes needed to approve $65 million in new buildings to house the district’s exploding student population.

Both cities have a strong history of supporting education initiatives, just like many of the smaller towns in our region that in the recent past have routinely voted down school-related funding measures.

So what’s different today? The easy answers are found in the refrains given by “no”-voters outside the polls:

Both are reasonable answers. But I suspect other dynamics are at play.

Let’s examine two trends in the recent Moorhead and West Fargo school elections:

  • The older geographical areas of both cities voted against the measures while the newer geographical areas voted for them.

  • The older geographical areas of both cities have on average an older population than the newer geographical areas of both cities.

    It’s unfortunate that most cities, Moorhead and West Fargo included, eventually abandon older, inner-city schools to build newer schools on the outskirts. It’s a natural urge for cities and school districts to incent population and geographic growth to spread the tax base. School districts then use those growth patterns to justify building newer schools on the fringes while closing schools where fewer children eventually live.

    The problem with this trend is that at some point, no matter how strongly one believes in the education-makes-us-stronger ideology, older residents become disassociated from the very local schools they once sent their children to or attended themselves.

    Add to this inherent disenfranchisement a widespread perception among older voters that schools are spending less time teaching students and more time spoiling them with new-fangled facilities, feel-good rewards programs and expensive extracurricular activities and you have a recipe for more failed school-funding measures.

    And, guess what: The population is getting older, not younger.

    If school districts are to succeed in securing new operating money or facilities, they’ll need to better connect with older voters. They’ll need to give them a reason to care again.

    When the Moorhead and West Fargo school districts decide to go back to voters, proponents and district officials need to listen more closely to the concerns of those without kids in the system, then shape their plans accordingly. It’s the difference between success and failure, and the issue is only going to get more pronounced in the years ahead.

    Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Reach him at (701) 241-5579.