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‘Pent-up reaction’ to school decisions played part in failed

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 said 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.

Elsewhere around the state, several districts are mulling whether to seek excess mill levy votes, though none has 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.”

Tuesday’s vote was the first time since 1991 that a Fargo School Board had brought such an issue to the voters. That year, voters agreed to add 11.4 mills to the district’s 15-mill building fund.

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.

Strand, a self-proclaimed “flaming liberal fiscal conservative,” said Tuesday’s vote reflects a mix of resentments: unhappiness that Fargo’s Davies High School was built without a vote, that millions were spent on the Bluestem Center for the Arts in Moorhead, Minn., 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.

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.

Helmut Schmidt
Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.
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