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School board plans September referendum

Boiler at Gussner Elementary School
The Jamestown Public School Board plans to replace the boiler at Gussner Elementary School, which was installed in 1958. Courtesty / Dr. Robert Lech

The Jamestown Public School Board is planning a referendum to raise the levy authority of the district's building fund from 10 to 20 mills in a special election in September.

The mill increase would generate an additional $718,560, doubling the building fund budget for use on facility upgrades and other projects. The referendum would increase taxes $45 annually for a residential home valued at $100,000. If passed, the additional tax would be on tax statements distributed in December.

"I'm optimistic that we have put together a referendum that has been responsive to what the public has said," said Robert Lech, superintendent of the Jamestown public school district. "This is to clip the peak of some of our huge-scale projects."

In 2018, the district replaced two roofs at Jamestown Middle School, costing $445,000 — over half of the annual building fund budget — and required the school board to push other projects back.

A similar situation occurred this month when, on July 1, the district approved a $368,625 bid to replace the boiler at Roosevelt Elementary School.

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"The capital projects plan makes us plan the best we can," Lech said. "But things happen, and they become a priority."

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.

Under North Dakota Century Code law, building fund dollars are limited to seven areas, including:

  • Construction of district buildings and facilities.
  • Renovation, repair or expansion of school district building and facilities.
  • Improvement of district buildings, facilities and real property.
  • Leasing of buildings and facilities.
  • Payment of rentals upon contracts with the state board of public school education.
  • Payment of rentals upon contracts with municipalities for career and technical education facilities.
  • Payment of principal, premiums and interest on bonds.

"We're fearful to continue to kick the can down the road," Lech said. "The district has been good stewards with the tax funds, but we can't do this forever. We need additional support at some point."
The school district proposed a $34.4 million referendum in 2018 and was defeated 70% to 30%. Another $19 million referendum was rejected in 2015 by just 33 votes, a 59% approval rating.

For a referendum to pass, it needs at least 60% yes vote.

As for the special election itself, the Stutsman County Commission opted out of conducting the district's referendum this year, forcing the school board to either organize the election independently or wait until next year's primaries.

"It's a new experience for us, we haven't taken this on in the past, " Lech said. "But it's not a foreign idea for the school district to conduct their own election."

According to Lech, the school board has opted for a special election this fall in order to prioritize the need for the funds.

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"Waiting until the primary will delay the funds a whole other year," Lech said.

The capital projects plan expects several large projects the coming years, according to Lech. These projects include:

  • $6.5 million in HVAC/Temperature control upgrades.
  • $1.25 million in window replacements.
  • $1 million in electrical upgrades.
  • $750,000 to replace boiler in Gussner Elementary School and to convert it to steam.
  • $500,000 for science/STEM classroom upgrades at Jamestown Middle School.
  • $500,000 for fire protection and water service upgrades.
  • $325,000 to replace boiler at Lincoln Elementary School.
  • $325,000 to replace boiler at Louis L'Amour Elementary School.
  • $260,000 to update boiler and heating control systems at Jamestown Middle School.
  • $250,000 to update kitchens in the district.

For the 2018-19 budget, over 80% of the building fund budget has been or will be used for building repairs and roofing costs. The 10 year average for the capital projects plan projects building repairs and roofing costs to account for over 86% of the building fund.
"We only have the funding capacity to do so many projects at one time," Lech said. "We wouldn't operate a furnace from 1958 in our own home."

Both Lincoln Elementary School and Gussner Elementary School have had the same boiler since 1958 and are among the top priorities for the school board.

If passed, the building fund referendum would give the school board the authority to levy 20 mills, but according to Lech, doesn't necessarily mean the district would levy the full amount every year.

"It's just the authority to do so," Lech said. "It just gives the district the option to add ... this is the maximum amount we can ask for."

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