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School board addresses failed referendum

JSSP School News

The Jamestown Public School Board discussed reasons as to why a school referendum failed on Sept. 24 during a special meeting on Monday, Nov. 25. The referendum would have increased the board's levy authority on its building fund from 10 to 20 mills.

The board focused on several aspects that led the referendum to fail by 1,174 no votes to 764 yes votes, for a 39.5% yes vote. The special election needed a 60% approval rating to pass.

"There was no end date to it (the levy increase), it was an ongoing thing," said Melissa Gleason, board member. "There was a lack of trust that once we got those things taken care of (projects in the Capital Projects Plan) that it wasn't a route to get the football field."

In 2018, the school board proposed a $34.4 million general obligation school building bond for expansion, repair and upgrades throughout the school district, which included a $7.5 million athletic complex with a turf football field and shared facilities for soccer at Jamestown High School. The referendum failed with a 29.13% yes vote.

Lech said the 2019 referendum was "more palatable" to some voters in comparison to the failed referendum in 2018 as well as another $19 million failed referendum in 2015. Lech said the school board was able to distribute information this year about how the funds would be spent in several different ways, including the school district's website, social media, written materials and radio.

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"The information was plentiful, if you wanted to find it," said Jennifer Schmidt, school board president.

The school board approved the Capital Projects Plan in 2016, an outline for facility needs over a 10-year span averaging a cost of $2.16 million annually. The current building fund only generates 33% of that cost, a total of $718,560 annually.

"It was an unending mill levy, it was an open-ended ... there was no end-date to it," Gleason said. "There's that trust issue of people thinking we're going to do something else with it (the funds)."

The school board discussed other reasons that led the referendum to fail this year, including the location of the polls, poor weather and consequently a poor economic climate due to crop yields and the timing of the teacher contract negotiations that were in progress at the time of the election.

"My gut instinct tells me that a lot of elders voted no because of the tax load and a lot of teachers voted no because they were still upset about the teacher negotiations and this was a way to send a message to the board," said Diane Hanson, board member. "I think it was an emotional vote and the timing was bad."

Board members agreed that the timing of the vote was significantly worsened by other entities increasing taxes throughout the city of Jamestown and Stutsman County.

"Our community has told us pretty definitively twice that they are at what they perceive to be the maximum level of support," said Superintendent Robert Lech. "And that's not necessarily just school ... that's the same if you're talking sales tax impact, the same if you're talking property tax and county and if you're talking city ...everybody just kind of feels the same way.

"I'm at the max of what I can reasonably support as a citizen," Lech said.

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The school board also discussed feedback they have received in regard to why some voters said yes to the referendum.

"The people that I talked to, they knew we needed it," said Robert Toso, board member. "It was necessary."

In terms of moving forward, the the school board took no action during the meeting but did discuss a potential referendum down the road.

"Anytime in the next year is too soon," said Roger Haut, board member.

"As a board, we just have to see, when is the right time to bring a plan back to the community, and what is that plan," Lech said. "We've swung the bat three times here, and at some point we're going to need to do it again."

Toso said giving the community time could be beneficial to the school board. In 2019, 1,949 votes were cast for the referendum, in comparison to 3,914 the year before.

"If you're doing the best you can and all that you can do, that's all you can do," Toso said. "People like simple solutions to complex problems."

"Nobody calls you up to say 'Hey thanks for giving us extra taxes,'" said Steve Veldkamp, board member.

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The board also discussed potentially meeting with other taxing entities in the community in the future to strengthen communication, including officials from the city of Jamestown and Stutsman County. Lech said failed referendums are happening across the state, not just in Jamestown.

"People just feel tapped out," Lech said.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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