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Jim Shaw, Published October 04 2010

Schools voters were not aware of full ramifications of ’91 vote

I strongly disagree with The Forum’s Sept. 24 editorial on the historical perspective on voting for schools in Fargo. The reality is that in 1991, Fargo residents did not realize what they were voting on. They were never properly told.

During my entire 21 years as a reporter at WDAY-TV, I had the Fargo school beat. I covered hundreds of School Board meetings and wrote about 1,000 stories on the Fargo School District.

In 1991, the Fargo School District was rapidly growing and badly needed a new middle school on the south side. In order to build that middle school, Fargo voters needed to approve the project, and so a special election was scheduled.

I extensively covered that election, writing many stories. I even put together a three-part special series on the election. I also attended several public forums on the election and the need for a new school.

In all the interviews I did on this project, everyone said the same thing. Specifically, that this was a vote to build one new school. No one said this would give the School Board a permanent tax hike to build as many schools as they would like without having to go to the voters again. Likewise, at all the public forums, it was the same message: This was strictly a vote for a new middle school.

The wording on the ballot was so vague that it did not clearly indicate the long-term implications of the vote. As a result, the building project was approved, and Discovery School was constructed.

To this day, I have never found a Fargo resident who voted in that election who realized that he or she was giving the board permanent approval to fund future schools with a permanent tax hike without any more public votes.

It is fair to say that if Fargo residents understood what they were voting for in 1991, the Discovery School project never would have passed. Since that election, at least five new schools have been approved for construction by the School Board – all perfectly legal, but definitely not what voters had in mind when they approved Discovery.

As someone still working in the news media, it is inappropriate for me to say whether those additional schools were needed or whether there should be public votes on new schools. However, I am certain that Fargo voters unknowingly and unwillingly gave the School Board the authority to build these schools without a public vote.

Shaw is news director for KVRR-TV, Fargo-Moorhead.