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Helmut Schmidt, Published March 12 2014

Board member says 'pent-up reaction' played role in failed Fargo school levy vote

FARGO – Fargo School District voters spoke Tuesday, and many of them weren’t happy.

On Wednesday, School Board members said they will re-examine the district’s options after 57 percent of voters rejected the district’s request to levy up to 150 mills in property taxes for the general fund.

“We definitely had a communication by the public that got our attention,” board member John Strand said. “I kind of consider it a pent-up reaction that maybe to a degree was coming for several years. But maybe there’s some good coming out of this.”

Supporters of the mill levy vote had a couple of other losses Wednesday.

The leaders of the “Vote Yes” campaign – former Fargo Mayor Bruce Furness and Cole Carley, former head of the Convention and Visitors Bureau – both told The Forum they won’t head another campaign.

“I take it too personally,” said Carley, who added that strategically, it would be better to have new faces lead a fresh campaign.

“Votes are moments in time,” Carley said. “ ‘No’ doesn’t always mean ‘no’ forever. In fact, frequently ‘no’ doesn’t mean ‘no’ forever.”

The complexity of the issue needs someone “closer to education,” Furness said. “It was a tough job to try to educate people on these mill levies.”

The excess mill levy vote, required by state law for any district levying more than 79 general fund mills, was rejected 57 percent to 43 percent.

Fargo levies 139 general fund mills and asked for 11 more for emergencies.

The district must get any excess mill levy approved by the end of 2015 or dollars captured by the general fund levy will be frozen. The district can take the issue back to voters again.

Tuesday’s vote was the first time since 1991 that a Fargo School Board had brought such an issue to the voters.

In 1991, voters agreed to add 11.4 mills to the district’s 15-mill building fund. That gave the district the money to build Discovery Middle School and Centennial Elementary.

The last Fargo mill levy vote was a 2002 citizen-led drive that capped the school district’s unlimited mill levy at 295.46 mills.

That effort was headed by Strand – he was elected to the School Board in 2008 – and City Commissioner Mike Williams.

Strand, a self-proclaimed “flaming liberal fiscal conservative,” said the vote reflects a mix of resentments: unhappiness that Davies High School was built without a vote, that millions were spent on the Bluestem Center for the Arts in Moorhead, that there was a special election and that the date of the election was changed.

“My guess is the public sure would have liked to see us pull in our belts a little more,” Strand said.

Larry Gauper, one of the most visible and outspoken opponents of the mill levy request, said the result was democracy in action.

Gauper said the result might have been different if the school district had held votes on the Davies High or Bluestem decisions and had not spent money to hold the special election.

“We (district voters) felt manipulated,” he said.

The School Board would do better next time by presenting the public with an outline of what it can cut, and why it wants to preserve specific programs, Gauper said.

“If they decide to go back in (for another vote), they must clearly spell out why they need to go back in. Are the teachers going to take a haircut (give up pay or benefits)? Will they have to close a school? What will they do about Bluestem? What are they going to do about administration? They need to spell out specifically what’s going to get cut,” he said.

“Leeway I was not prepared to give them. I wanted a tighter rein. The voter wanted a tighter rein on their thinking and budgeting,” Gauper said.

School Board President Dinah Goldenberg said the board hasn’t analyzed the election yet.

“Obviously, we need to sit down and have some discussion about what the vote means in the immediate and the long term. I don’t think we’ll be rushing into anything,” she said.

Goldenberg said it would be nice to give Gauper and others specifics about where potential cuts could be made, but under state election law that could be construed as an attempt to use scare tactics to sway the vote, something school boards are prohibited from doing.

A plus about holding the vote early is that the board has time to prioritize what changes might have to be made in the district, or whether to seek another vote, Goldenberg said.

Strand agrees.

“We can work with this,” Strand said. “Where there’s no pain, there’s no gain. People are challenging us to re-evaluate our approach to funding education.”

Elsewhere around the state, several districts are mulling whether to seek excess mill levy votes, though none have a levy as high as Fargo’s

The Grand Forks School District will soon weigh its options for its 89 general fund mills, Superintendent Larry Nybladh said.

Nybladh said the results of Fargo’s vote will have little effect on his district’s decision, or elsewhere.

“Every school district’s needs and circumstances are so very different,” he said. “It really would have very negligible effect on the thinking of our school board.”

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