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Published March 24 2010

NOT ENOUGH BACKERS: West Fargo votes down school referendum

It was unprecedented for the West Fargo School District.

The second referendum in a year failed on Tuesday – the first time in the district’s history, one principal said, that back-to-back referendums have failed.

“Disappointing,” School Board Vice President Karen Nitzkorski said. “We absolutely ... need space for kids.”

Tuesday’s $40 million referendum would have funded a $30 million high school and $10 million elementary school.

The district needed 60 percent approval to build new schools. It fell 140 votes short of reaching that, with 57.4 percent of voters (3,064) casting “yes” votes and 42.6 percent of voters (2,275) casting “no” votes in unofficial results Tuesday night.

It was a crushing defeat for West Fargo resident Heather Sand, who teared up after Tuesday’s results came in.

“I knew it was going to be close. It’s just so hard to get 60 percent,” said Sand, who was a part of the “Vote Yes” group. “(I’m) stressed because my children will hit the middle school ... and I’m really uncomfortable sending them to an overcrowded school.”

Tuesday’s vote was a scaled-down version of last June’s $65 million referendum, which garnered 51 percent support. Officials had hoped that a smaller price tag would bring success.

However, it left some residents such as Carolyn Meester wary the district had the “right” plan.

The West Fargo resident said she was worried a second high school – built for 800 students instead of the 1,200 students last June’s vote would’ve supported – wouldn’t accommodate future growth.

“How can you go from $65 million to $40 million and make it work?” she asked.

Many other voters who cast “no” votes said they understood the need for more schools, but they just didn’t like the district’s plan.

“I think they failed with the same plan twice, basically,” West Fargo resident Dan Levin said. “I just think it’s a bad plan. It’s time they actually find out what the voters want.”

Tuesday’s election brought out slightly more voters than last June’s.

Of the 25,000 active eligible West Fargo School District voters – which includes residents in Horace, Harwood, Fargo and West Fargo – 5,339 voters cast ballots on Tuesday. That’s up from the 4,538 voters that participated in last June’s referendum.

For south Fargo resident Mike Kotzbacher, the failed vote is personal.

His wife teaches at Aurora Elementary School, which is where his first-grader would go if the school wasn’t so overcrowded that it has to send about 60 first-graders to Osgood Kindergarten Center.

“There are a lot of kids out here,” he said. “They need room.”

That’s why school officials will explore short-term solutions to the schools’ space crunch by either increasing class sizes or looking for additional temporary space.

“The future board is going to have a lot to do,” board President Tom Gentzkow said. “They’re going to have their hands full.”

Breakdown by polling site

Westside Elementary School:

Yes - 50.1 percent; No - 49.9 percent

Veterans Memorial Arena:

Yes - 52.5 percent; No - 47.5 percent

Sheyenne Ninth Grade Center:

Yes - 71.9 percent; No - 28.1 percent

Horace Senior Center:

Yes - 63.4 percent; No - 36.6 percent

Harwood Elementary School:

Yes - 45.9 percent; No - 54.1 percent

TOTAL: Yes - 3,064 votes (57.4 percent); No - 2,275 votes (42.6 percent)

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515