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Erik Burgess, Published March 15 2014

After ‘no’ vote on tax levy, Fargo school board members predict cuts

FARGO – After school district voters here shot down a plan to keep property tax rates higher than a new state cap, two school board members for the first time uncorked their anger and fears about the effect it could have in the district.

They predicted the long-term effect will be larger class sizes, fewer course offerings, fewer teachers and closing underutilized neighborhood schools.

School board members Robin Nelson and Paul Meyers took to Facebook on Wednesday and Thursday to relay those concerns.

In a lengthy online conversation about the vote, Nelson detailed a long list of possible consequences to voters rejecting the district plan to keep its general mill levy as high as 150 mills, rather than the state-set cap of 70 mills. The district levied 139 general fund mills this year.

“I predict the fall out of the no vote will mean we will have less teachers and elective courses, which then means larger class sizes … which means less need for classrooms, which means closing underutilized neighborhood schools, which in turn impacts the local economy and neighborhood centers,” Nelson wrote. “But if that is what our constituency wants, then the board will comply.”

“The fallout will proceed over the next ten years,” Nelson added.

Meyers responded to the naysayers by asking if they support raising class sizes and cutting specialized classes.

“Because that is most assuredly the outcome of this vote,” he wrote.

In an interview Friday, Nelson said state law prevented board members from showing preference one way or the other before the vote.

“Now that the vote’s over, I can say whatever the heck I want, and I’m going to,” she said. “And this is what’s going to happen.”

The district could bring this back to the public for another vote, and Nelson and Meyers said they hope that happens. If voters don’t approve a higher mill authority by the end of 2015, the district’s general fund tax revenue will freeze until its property values increase enough for that amount to equal 70 mills.

The district estimates the long-range effects could be drastic. With 2.2 percent growth in property values, it would lose less than $1 million in the first year. But by 2025, the district could forego $51.5 million in revenues.

The first place the district would look to cut would likely be staff costs, which make up 75 percent of the budget, Nelson said.

“So, if some cuts are going to have to happen, of course we’re going to have to look at the biggest part of our budget as one piece of this discussion,” she said.

The board will get started as early as Monday in discussing what could be cut in the wake of the “no” vote, Nelson said.

That could include changing bus schedules, cutting paraprofessionals, and cutting or changing extracurricular activities and advanced placement courses, she said.

In the Facebook thread, Nelson was accused of fear-mongering to get a “yes” vote, but when interviewed, she said discussing these cuts is the board doing its “due diligence.”

“The voters have told us right now that, ‘Hey, we want you to tighten your belts and lower the education level that’s delivered,’ and the board has to respond,” she said.

“It would be irresponsible if we didn’t start already considering some of these cuts,” Nelson added.

In an interview Friday, Meyers blamed the media, saying the impact of a “no” vote was communicated before Tuesday’s election, but no one reported it.

“Nobody on the school board is threatening negative consequences,” he said. “I think the consequences speak for themselves. If we have a limited budget, we’re going to have to find a way to limit what we do.”

Meyers said there was a surge of misinformation before the vote, with an undue focus on the district spending millions on the Bluestem Center for the Arts in Moorhead and the construction of Davies High School.

He called Bluestem a “feather in the cap of the community.” He compared the lack of a vote on the new high school to the city of Fargo not seeking a public vote to build a new $15 million City Hall.

In the Facebook post, Meyers lashed out against those who were concerned about Bluestem and Davies.

“If you think education is expensive ... try ignorance,” he wrote. “This recurrent theme of ‘bad Davies’ ‘bad Bluestem’ is reasonably typical of the myths and misinformation that some of these people use for food.”

Meyers said the message of the “yes” vote should have been about keeping a high quality educational system in Fargo. The “no” vote, he said, will lead to a “second-class school system.”

“I hope we bring it back for another vote because the students of Fargo and the parents and the whole community deserve a better answer,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518