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Helmut Schmidt, Published August 29 2010

Fargo School Board members weigh in on whether public should vote on building projects

An informal poll of Fargo School Board members about whether public votes should be held for school construction projects reveals a range of opinions – from put every school on the ballot, to let the board decide as it has done for years.

The issue heated up after protests by property owners near Davies High School about special assessments for roads and other infrastructure.

City Commissioner Mike Williams has also called for public votes on school construction.

Such votes have strong support among the newest members of the School Board, The Forum found.

In fact, John Strand – now midway through his first term – has submitted a resolution to board President Jim Johnson and Superintendent Rick Buresh that he wants heard by the board in coming weeks. It requires school building projects to get a public vote if any money from the district’s general fund must be used to pay for them.

Strand said he’s fine with the board making decisions using 26.4 mills earmarked for building, but he doesn’t want the district’s other revenues used for bricks and mortar unless the public agrees.

“This does not throw the baby out with the bath water. It’s kind of a happy medium,” Strand said.

Linda Coates, who just took office, said public sentiment about new school construction has changed in recent years.

She also expects the issue to be debated in the coming legislative session.

“I think once you build a high school, and the size and scope of that, kind of changes the atmosphere,” she said. “People feel that something of that magnitude should be voted on, and I think the North Dakota Legislature is going to jump on it.”

Coates said that she would like the School Board to vote on all new buildings, from elementary schools on up. However, she said the board should have the flexibility to authorize a building addition if needed.

Kris Wallman, another new member, said Moorhead, West Fargo and other communities have been generally successful in getting bond issues approved for buildings.

“I think there has to be an open relationship with the community and school leaders, so we’re on the same page,” she said.

The parameters for when a vote should take place must be set, Wallman said. For example, if adding a classroom wing to Kennedy gets pricey enough, “there should be a point it goes to voters.”

Rusty Papachek said he doesn’t want the board to be hamstrung when it comes to putting up an addition – or even an elementary school.

On the other hand, high schools or middle schools should go to a public vote, he said, adding that public forums and education can help them pass.

Dinah Goldenberg, who is starting her second term, said she has mixed feelings about the issue.

“When Davies was decided to be built, it was the will of the people,” she said, citing extensive public input through surveys and forums to create a long-range facilities plan.

The input called for smaller schools, including high schools, and a balance in high school sizes, she said.

“I think the system has worked so far. I don’t think it has been a bad policy,” she said, adding that she would not want to see a dollar limit on decisions.

“We elect officials who are supposed to do the research. That’s what I feel I’m doing. We were elected to do that,” she said.

Public votes for every matter would be unwieldy, time-consuming and expensive, she said.

However, it may be time to re-evaluate what the public wants in its schools, she said.

Johnson declined to take part in the poll. He said he’s been advised that the poll interviews of the board could be considered a form of meeting, and potentially violate open meeting laws.

Paul Meyers said he had similar concerns but shared some general thoughts on the matter of school votes.

“Boards often make decisions which may or may not pass a popular vote. … Sometimes you just have to say, ‘That’s what we need to do,’ ” Meyers said.

“Historically, I’ve been OK with bringing the votes to the public. But we haven’t been bringing them to the public, and there have been many, many instances where … other commissions haven’t brought votes to the public,” he said, referring to Fargo city projects.

Rick Steen could not be reached for comment.

Robin Nelson was recuperating from recent surgery and declined to comment at this time.

The school district has built several buildings since 1991, when Discovery Middle School was built. The public vote for that project provided 11.4 mills in taxing authority to the school district, which it has continued to harness, along with a 15-mill building fund and other funding mechanisms to build Carl Ben Eielson Middle School, Bennett Elementary, Kennedy Elementary and Davies High School.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583