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Helmut Schmidt, Published September 29 2010

Fargo School Board tables building vote effort

An effort that would have required public votes on new construction using the Fargo School District’s Building Authority was tabled Tuesday after more than an hour of testimony and debate.

The move to table the measure was approved on an 8-1 vote, with the resolution’s author, John Strand, voting against it.

Strand had sought to give the public the chance to vote on new construction projects that would require using the district’s building authority for funding. Voters would have to approve the project with a greater than 50 percent vote for the project to go ahead.

Board President Jim Johnson directed that the resolution be worked on in the board’s subcommittees, and that legal advice should be sought on issues, including whether the board could even give the public the right to vote on buildings, rather than just on the funding.

The measure had strong supporters on the board, but other members opposed it or said they wavered in support because of worries on how it would affect the board’s ability to react to district needs.

“This will be a litmus test for us,” said Strand, saying now was a good time to put the policy in place because there was no need for major school projects on the horizon.

“Whether we like it or not, public sentiment has changed,” said Linda Coates. “I think Davies (High School) was a game-changer. … I think we’ve lost some of the feeling the public is on board with us,”

Coates warned that either the Legislature or a public referral could force a change in board policy.

“I think we need to give the voters the option,” Kris Wallman said.

She said getting more than 50 percent of voters to approve a good project shouldn’t be too tough.

“I think it buys a lot of trust with the public,” Wallman said.

But others disagreed, citing a lack of clarity in how the resolution was worded and how it would be put into effect.

“I feel there are way too many pieces that are not clear enough to vote for it,” Dinah Goldenberg said.

“I think we need to be careful about what we present to the public in this vote,” board member Rick Steen said.

He said if the resolution was worded poorly, “there won’t be the tools available” to react to such issues as continued southside enrollment growth.

Fargo schools are funded by a couple of mechanisms, Johnson explained. There is a 15-mill levy allowed by state law. There are also 11.4 mills that were approved by voters in 1991.

The district Building Authority also issues bonds to pay for projects. Those bonds are paid back by lease payments to the authority. For certain projects, those payments have been made from the general fund.

Fargo District 21 state Rep. Steven Zaiser urged the board to approve the resolution, and said that if no action was taken, that he would consider crafting a bill in the Legislature that would lay out when school districts would have to get public approval to use their building authorities to pay for construction projects.

Other members of the public testifying on the issue were roughly split on their support or opposition to the resolution.

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