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Helmut Schmidt, Published March 11 2014

Voters overwhelmingly reject Fargo School District mill levy request

FARGO – The Fargo School District’s request to levy up to 150 general fund mills was easily defeated in Tuesday’s special election.

There were 3,486 votes against the measure and 2,594 votes for, according to unofficial results from the Cass County Auditor’s Office.

The measure lost 57.3 percent to 42.7 percent. It needed a simple majority to pass.

“We are definitely disappointed,” School Board President Dinah Goldenberg said. “The next thing is a lot of discussion. The board will be talking about the results. I don’t know where we go from here.”

Goldenberg said the School Board is legally allowed to take the issue back to the voters, but that will have to be discussed in the next few weeks.

“We’re in development stage of the budget for the coming year. The results may impact what we may or may not do with the budget,” Goldenberg said.

The district sought voter approval to continue its current 139 general fund mill levy, plus 11 more if needed, for a mill levy that is more than double a cap of 70 general fund mills set by state lawmakers.

The district needs voter approval of the levy by the end of 2015 or the dollars from its current mill levy will be frozen and the district will lose out on revenue from increases in property values.

Early voters were nearly 2 to 1 against the measure, voting 823 against and 447 for. Absentee voters were nearly 3 to 1 against, with 121 voting against and 38 for.

At Atonement Lutheran Church, 509 voters were against the measure and 293 for. At the Fargodome, 340 were against and 246 for. At South High School, 432 voted against and 298 for. At Lincoln Elementary, it was 237 against and 176 for, McKinley Elementary was 317 against and 278 for and Madison Elementary was 71 against and 30 for.

Just three of the nine sites were carried by levy supporters. At Kennedy Elementary, 250 voted for the measure and 210 against. At Clara Barton Elementary, it was 319 for and 239 against. And at Roosevelt Elementary, it was 219 for and 187 against.

“It’s quite obvious to me that the vote was a message to School Board members about Davies (High School) construction and Bluestem (Center for the Arts),” board member Robin Nelson said.

Davies High was built without a direct public vote, opponents said. And the School Board spent several million dollars on Bluestem after a support group failed to raise the funds needed for bond payments.

The polls saw steady voting throughout the day, election inspectors and Cass Auditor Mike Montplaisir said.

As of 3:30 p.m., about 2,346 people had visited the nine polling sites, Montplaisir said.

“More activity than we anticipated,” said Jan McLean, the inspector at the Fargo South High School polls.

The state of North Dakota since 2009 has bought down 125 mills of local school property taxes.

State funding now makes up 69 percent of the Fargo School District’s revenues, with 30 percent from local property taxes.

In return, lawmakers have required every school district either get general fund mill levies to 70 mills by the end of 2015, or obtain permission from voters to allow levies above that level.

Board members said approving the measure wouldn’t have been a tax increase, but would allow district revenues to rise with increases in property values. The approval was to stand for 10 years, starting in 2016.

Minor problems

More stringent requirements for voter identification tripped up a few voters, Montplaisir said.

State law no longer allows voters to fill out an affidavit at the polls saying that they are a resident of the district, he said.

Voters are now required to have one of five forms of identification: a valid driver’s license with current address; a valid state ID card, obtained free at Department of Motor Vehicles sites; a valid tribal ID; a certificate from a long-term care facility; or a student identification certificate from a North Dakota state college or university, county election coordinator DeAnn Buckhouse said.

Another minor problem is that some Fargo residents who live in the West Fargo School District had to be turned away, poll inspectors said.

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