Districts struggle to get public supportThe failed referendum here on Tuesday showed that school districts have a tough sell asking taxpayers for extra dollars today.
By: By Kelly Smith , Forum Communications Co. , The Jamestown Sun
WEST FARGO, N.D. — The failed referendum here on Tuesday showed that school districts have a tough sell asking taxpayers for extra dollars today.
Officials at school districts from West Fargo to Pelican Rapids, Minn., have faced uphill battles in the last couple of years trying to gain public support for increased funding.
“It’s a tough time to be going asking for that voter support,” said Moorhead Superintendent Lynne Kovash, whose district saw an operating levy fail for the first time last fall.
School leaders say it’s largely due to mounting public distrust and the uncertain economy. What’s more, education is often the only place taxpayers can snub tax increases.
“When taxes go up there’s not often any opportunity to voice an opinion, but when the school taxes go up they can say, ‘well, I’ve had enough,’” Pelican Rapids Superintendent Deb Wanek said.
In addition, public distrust after fraudulent schemes such as Enron have caused doubt to trickle down to public institutions, she said.
“We are subject to that same pessimism now,” she added.
North Dakota School Boards Association Executive Director Jon Martinson echoed that, adding that “there has been a gradual erosion of trust and even civility among people towards politicians — level or the state level or even the local level.”
Defeated votes, though, have taught school officials some lessons.
Last November, Moorhead voters shot down an operational levy that would’ve increased school taxes by $850 per student. Before then, referendums had always passed in the district, Kovash said.
“We have to get the public to understand the work we’re doing,” she added.
Both Kovash and Wanek said school districts now need to regain public trust by being transparent and articulating how educational needs have changed in today’s classrooms.
Pelican Rapids has even added podcasts to the district’s Web site, illustrating schools’ value, Wanek said.
She hopes the extra communication pays off. The district is mailing out ballots in May for a scaled down vote following two failed referendums in the past two years.
In West Fargo, school officials plan to wait until new leadership takes over this summer before they explore what to do next. Voters rejected a $40 million referendum for two new schools during Tuesday’s vote.
The referendum needed 60 percent approval to pass, but fell short when 57.4 percent voters cast “yes” ballots.
“These are tough times,” school board Vice President Karen Nitzkorski said. “We need to go back to the drawing board.”
Kelly Smith is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by
Forum Communications Co.