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Published June 10, 2009, 12:00 AM

West Fargo school referendum fails

60 percent majority was needed for the referendum to succeed
Tuesday was historic for West Fargo, but not for the reason the School Board had hoped.

By: Kelly Smith, INFORUM

Tuesday was historic for West Fargo, but not for the reason the School Board had hoped.

The district’s $65 million school buildings referendum failed – the first of three referendums in the past eight years that didn’t receive voter approval.

“Disappointing, very disappointing,” said Darcy Diemert, a member of the Vote Yes committee and wife of a district administrator. “I’m very surprised. To me, it seemed like a no-brainer. We’re doing it for our kids.”

Of 4,538 ballots cast in the seven precincts, 2,329, or 51.3 percent of the voters, cast a “yes” vote, while 2,209, or 48.7 percent, voted “no.”

A 60 percent majority was needed for the referendum to succeed.

Older areas in the district – Harwood, Westside Elementary and City Hall – leaned toward “no” votes. “Yes” votes dominated newer developments such as Veterans Memorial Arena, West Acres, Shiloh Evangelical Free Church and Horace.

The numbers surprised school officials who had been optimistic the referendum would pass, but they took the defeat in stride.

“It’s a majority, but it’s not a supermajority,” board President Tom Gentzkow said.

“It’s not a horrible message,” Superintendent Dana Diesel Wallace added. “It’s a part of the process.”

The 60 percent approval needed is “a high standard to meet,” she said. “We elect presidents of the United States with significantly less.”

The referendum called for a new elementary school, a second ninth- through 12th-grade high school, more outdoor fields, renovations to the existing high school, expansion of Horace Elementary and converting Sheyenne Ninth Grade Center to a middle school.

“We’ve never done this; there’s never been a bond of this magnitude,” board member Duane Hanson said.

School officials knew that building a second high school in the proud Packer city was going to be a tough sell, but taxes seemed to be the root of many “no” voters.

“Our property taxes are ridiculous,” said Mary Colvin, who lives in the Osgood development in Fargo. “Accountability by the board is what we need. They’re throwing their money away.”

“There’s a lot of retired people who don’t want their taxes raised,” added West Fargo resident Carla Gustin.

Disappointed and defeated, the Vote Yes committee speculated on factors that could have brought down the referendum: recent letters to the editor in The Forum opposing the referendum, timing or the bleak economy.

“It could have been a $20 million project,” committee member Todd Fuchs said. “I think people are just taxed out.”

In 2002, 3,681 people voted for a $31 million school building referendum, with it passing by 89.7 percent. And in 2005, 2,407 people voted on the district’s $27 million bond and it passed by 83 percent.

State law allows the district to hold another vote in three months, but officials wouldn’t speculate if they will.

“It’s teasing out what happened,” Diesel Wallace said. “What’s the next step? We’ll figure it out.”

How precincts voted

Here’s a list of how each West Fargo school district precinct voted on the schools referendum:

  • Harwood (1*): 104 yes, 171 no.

  • Veterans Memorial Union (2): 651 yes, 618 no.

  • Westside (3): 375 yes, 420 no.

  • City Hall (4): 342 yes, 481 no.

  • West Acres (5): 229 yes, 132 no.

  • Shiloh Evangelical Free Church (6): 352 yes, 233 no.

  • Horace (7): 276 yes, 154 no.

    Total: 2329 yes, 2209 no, out of 4538 votes; 51.3 percent yes, 48.7 percent no.

    * numbers denote precinct locations

    Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki contributed to this report.

    Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515