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Jane Ahlin, Published March 01 2014

Ahlin: Vote ‘yes’ for the future of Fargo public schools

The subject of mill levies doesn’t make for dazzling dialogue. Unless we see mill levy authority as being abused or as unreasonable, it’s ho-hum stuff likely to make our eyes glaze over. Still, it’s important, so let’s do our best to talk about it.

The truth is, Fargo’s future is tied to school district flexibility in the mill levy.

That’s not to say there aren’t other important decisions to be made for Fargo; however, as a city, we are only as good as the education we provide our children. In this case, that means a “yes” vote on the mill levy authority measure to be decided in the special election March 11.

Let’s start with the history that led the Fargo School District to this vote. Back in 2002, Fargo voters removed the unlimited mill level authority in favor of capping the mill levy at 295.46 mills. Today that seems high, but at the time, it was reasonable.

State government hadn’t yet wrapped its collective head around the unfairness mill levies brought to K-12 school funding. Property-poor school districts could not compete with those who were not. Those like Fargo, for whom mill levies brought in adequate funding only because they were kept at high levels, were constantly juggling finances to keep from having to raise them even more. Legislators listened to grumbling and held endless hearings, but the state level of funding hardly budged.

That was the olden days. (No question, we’re happy to be able to make that statement.) North Dakota’s not-well-predicted, yet ever-growing, surplus from unprecedented oil revenues – not to mention the enormous reserves of the voter-approved “Legacy Fund” – put to rest the notion that legislators dare not put big dollars into state support of schools for fear they couldn’t keep it up when North Dakota’s economy soured. The results have been dramatic. Between the reductions required by North Dakota state legislators and made up for in state funding and the reductions done by Fargo Public Schools administration and board, the general mill levy property owners pay has plummeted. From 295.46 in 2002, the mill levy decreased to 139 in 2013-14.

In other words, in little more than a decade, the general mill levy Fargo property owners expect to pay has decreased more than 50 percent.

What makes this so interesting is that the current voter-approved limit for the Fargo school district is at 170.46 mills. Yet, state law now mandates that no school district can ask voters to authorize more than “seventy mills on the dollar of the taxable valuation of the school district.” That means that the Fargo district must go to the voters to maintain any flexibility in mill levy authority.

Take another look at the current level of authorized mill level authority (170.46), then look at the language that is on the March 11 ballot, which reads, “Shall Fargo Public School District No. 1 have a general fund authority of up to one hundred fifty mills effective December 31, 2015, for the following ten years?”

That’s right. The Fargo School District is asking for authority only up to 150 mills – a mere 11 mills more than the 139 now in place.

Having had three children in the Fargo Public School system when the mill levy was its major funding mechanism, I’m amazed that the projections for the next 10 years allow for such a reasonable cap. That fact speaks to a well-run and forward-looking school district.

In fact, between now and March 11, review the “District Guiding Principles” for class size and school configuration and the “Long Range Facility Plan” for maintenance and future schools. Talk to a member of the Fargo School Board about the crucial need for mill levy flexibility. The state has stepped up in many ways, but mill levy flexibility is the only way to assure that we will have local control. And to maintain quality in our schools, we must have local control.

Vote on March 11, and vote, “yes.”

Ahlin, who writes a Sunday column for The Forum, is on vacation. Her next column will appear March 30.