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Published March 25 2010

Forum editorial: West Fargo ‘no’ erodes confidence

The West Fargo School District is in danger of losing its status as one of the best public school systems in North Dakota. Tuesday’s defeat of a building bond issue – the second rejection in less than a year – signals an uncharacteristic slippage of support for education in a district that had been known for enthusiastically investing in the schools.

The message, whether conceded or not by “no” voters, is that West Fargo has stumbled off the path of education excellence. The fallout could be a change in the way families with children perceive the school system.

Don’t misunderstand. Slightly more than 57 percent of voters said “yes” to Tuesday’s referendum. In most other elections, 57 percent is a landslide. But by law 60 percent is the threshold, and West Fargo voters did not get there. In effect, a minority of 40 percent set the agenda.

In a district where support for public schools has been very strong, reaching 60 percent for needed school improvements should have been a sure thing. The district’s space and crowding problems have been on the radar for years. Class sizes are creeping upward as the student population grows. Several schools are at or above design capacity.

Who cares? Apparently a majority do not. The turnout was an abysmal 20 percent of eligible voters, a level of participation that suggests the previous almost-universal connection to the schools among West Fargoans has eroded a lot.

Sentiments among “no” voters run the gamut: The school board’s plan was flawed, say some. Others voiced resistance to more taxes. But those arguments were always part of the debate when West Fargo taxpayers were asked to step up for schools. And step up they did, until last year’s defeat of a building referendum. Tuesday’s similar turndown hints of an attitude change that does not bode well for a system that appears unable to deal with growth.

The real danger: Growth won’t be as much a problem in the future. Parents who are looking for good schools might sense West Fargo’s historic commitment to public education is not what it used to be, and they’ll choose to live elsewhere.

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