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Helmut Schmidt, Published June 08 2012

Fargo School Board opponents flip over Strand ads

FARGO – John Strand’s re-election print and radio ads say he’s the only Fargo School Board candidate in Tuesday’s election who’s “fighting to make sure the Fargo taxpayer won’t have to flip the bill for the Bluestem amphitheater in Minnesota.”

The other three incumbents in the 11-person race, however, said Friday that Strand’s claims about how the school board has handled the financial ills tied to the $15 million Bluestem Center for the Arts would flunk a truth test.

“I would label that a total misrepresentation of the facts,” longtime board member Paul Meyers said.

“I have repeatedly stated my position that we will guard the assets and resources of Fargo taxpayers diligently,” he said. “To be honest with you, I’ve just heard one of John’s ads, and I was just irritated.”

“My perception is that we are very interested in protecting taxpayer dollars,” incumbent Robin Nelson said, adding that it sounds like election-year politicking.

“I think it’s the only thing you can chalk it up to,” Nelson said.

Board President Jim Johnson called Strand’s ads “a total mischaracterization.”

“I don’t think he’s alone in his desire to be sure the taxpayers are protected,” Johnson said. “I’m in 100 percent disagreement with his statement. … I think he’s running a political campaign, and he thinks this is a catchy slogan.”

Four positions are up for election on the nine-person board. School board members are paid $12,000 a year.

Strand said he hasn’t gotten feedback on the ads, running in the High Plains Reader and on KFGO AM radio, but he sticks by his assertions.

“My position all along has been to find a broader community approach and to not simply go down the path of having the school district and the taxpayers flip the bill,” he said. “That’s my first choice: to bring Moorhead to the table, bring Bluestem officials to the table, and Fargo School District people and community leaders to the table, and negotiate a greater community good settlement.”

Strand was one of eight board members who voted four years ago to have the Fargo School District guarantee $3.5 million in bonds issued by Clay County for the south Moorhead arts facility.

Those bonds are a big part of the impasse between Bluestem fundraisers and the School Board.

The Bluestem group didn’t have the cash to make a $286,000 bond payment in December, forcing the School District to make the payment. Since then, the district has paid the center’s operating costs.

Recently, Bluestem fundraisers said they can’t raise funds for either the remaining

$2.1 million in bond payments, or for a $2.7 million loan from the district used to build the Bluestem Center.

The School Board then notified the bond holders and Bluestem that it will pay off the $2.1 million in bonds by Aug. 1, and take over all of the Bluestem group’s lease rights – unless some other solution is found.

Strand said he opposed the school board paying the facility’s operations costs, running the facility, and issuing the letter that has tripped the countdown to the takeover of the lease rights.

He said those moves will mean unnecessary costs for taxpayers.

“It was 8 to 1 quite a few times” in the board votes, Strand said of his status as a hold-out on the issue.

Strand envisions having the city of Moorhead and community groups help shoulder Bluestem Center costs and not dumping them on taxpayers.

“Community support, community donations, and community running the facility,” Strand said.

Johnson said he doesn’t disagree with Strand’s position, but that he is too early with the initiative.

“We really need to first deal with our current partner (Bluestem fundraisers) and be sure they are on the same page,” Johnson said.

Strand said the budget for the coming year sets aside $235,000 for operating the Bluestem Center.

Any money going to Bluestem is “going to come out of our budget. It’s going to come at the expense of other priorities that are needed. There has to be a give,” he said.

Meyers said Strand has to do more homework before he says other School Board members aren’t doing their jobs.

“I’ve been a supporter of Trollwood (Performing Arts School) in north Fargo and at Bluestem (Center for the Arts) since 1978. I have served as president of the Trollwood coordinating council, where we seek ways to involve the city of Moorhead, and other school systems,” he said.

“I’ve been to the committee meetings. I’ve been to the meetings with Trollwood, the city of Moorhead and Bluestem, and John has not,” Meyers said.

He won’t go as far as saying Strand’s ads are throwing his fellow School Board members under the bus for the sake of re-election, but he comes close.

“It’s funny because his campaign visual is a bus. I’m sure it’s a small coincidence,” Meyers said.

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