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Erik Burgess, Published December 17 2013

Fargo district to use several schools for special election despite security concerns

FARGO – Despite renewed concerns about security at area schools, the Fargo School District will use several elementary schools and one high school as polling places in an upcoming special election.

The March 11 election is needed to get approval for a school district excess mill levy.

Cass County stopped using schools for primary and general election polling spots after 2006 due to concerns for student safety, but the Fargo district sets polling sites for its own special elections, said County Auditor Michael Montplaisir.

Security concerns were raised last week when a Valley News Live reporter claimed she was able to enter elementary schools in Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead with a hidden camera without checking in at the front office.

The station has said they were attempting to make people aware of holes in school security.

Fargo School Board member Jim Johnson said the seven schools chosen as polling places were picked after conversations with police. There will be one dedicated entrance in each school for voters, with the voting location sectioned off from the rest of the school.

“Security is always considered, on all fronts,” Johnson said.

The polling locations for the March special election are Lincoln, Clara Barton, Kennedy, Madison, McKinley and Roosevelt elementary schools, and South High School.

The district is also working “very closely” with the principals and police to get security personnel at each of those schools on the day of the election, said Broc Lietz, the district’s business manager.

“We are not concerned,” Lietz said. “Certainly we take school safety and security very seriously, and we want to make sure we’re providing the safest environment possible.”

Montplaisir said the county’s decision to stop using schools as polling sites for primary and general elections goes back to a letter sent to the county on Nov. 21, 2006, from Lowell Wolff, then an assistant to the Fargo superintendent.

“While using schools as polling sites has been a long tradition, we feel the security concerns for our students must take priority over the continuance of this tradition,” Wolff wrote in the letter.

Johnson said Tuesday that the School Board didn’t agree with Wolff at the time and still doesn’t.

“Going forward, we’re perfectly fine if the city or the county wants to use these buildings in the future, too,” Johnson said.

Montplaisir said there is a “whole list of reasons” beyond safety concerns why the county won’t use schools for polling places. He pointed to parking problems and inadequate space inside the schools.

“We have no interest in going back (to using schools),” Montplaisir said. “I was a little surprised that the School Board said, ‘No, we’re going to hold our election in the schools,’ especially when, last week, there’s this big stink about a reporter being in the schools.”

Montplaisir said the county still uses two schools as polling sites because of geographic convenience – Westside Elementary in West Fargo and Northern Cass in Hunter. A portion of the schools is sectioned off for voting.

In Fargo’s March 11 election, voters can also cast ballots at the Fargodome and Atonement Lutheran Church, 4601 S. University Drive. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Early voting will take place from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. March 5-7 at the Doublewood Inn, 3333 13th Ave. S., Johnson said.

A law passed by the state Legislature in the session earlier this year capped school mill levies at 70 mills, unless the public votes to allow an excess mill levy, Lietz said.

It was previously reported that the state-imposed cap was 110 mills, a 2009 figure that was lowered last session, Lietz said. A mill is a property tax rate, expressed as one-hundredth of a percent.

It takes a simple majority to pass, or 50 percent plus one vote.

The school district’s budget for 2013-14 calls for levying 139 general fund mills, which is 52.18 mills less than the 191.18 levied last year, Lietz said.

If voters don’t approve the excess mill levy, tax revenue the district brings in from existing properties is frozen until, over time, the dollars collected are equivalent to that 70-mill cap, Lietz said.

In the meantime, the district would lose millions of dollars annually in property tax revenue, he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518