West Fargo Schools sending referendum to voters on Tuesday

WEST FARGO -- Voters will go to the polls on Tuesday, Sept. 25, to decide if the West Fargo School District can move forward with a $106.9 million bond that would pay for a third high school and middle school as well security upgrades and artific...
West Fargo's Willow Park Elementary School opened in August, and voters are being asked on Tuesday, Sept. 25 to approve a $106.9 million bond that would pay for a third high school and middle school. Forum file photo

WEST FARGO - Voters will go to the polls on Tuesday, Sept. 25, to decide if the West Fargo School District can move forward with a $106.9 million bond that would pay for a third high school and middle school as well security upgrades and artificial turf for the district's three high schools.

Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at six locations: Harwood Community Center, Westside Elementary School, Lutheran Church of the Cross, Horace Senior Center, Scheels Arena and Triumph West Church.

The ballot referendum will ask voters to increase the district mill levy of 44.9 mills by 16.4 mills. However, the levy would not actually go up that much due to debt the district will be paying off, plus an increase in new building and property values.

Instead, the district expects the levy would increase by only 3.51 mills and that the mill levy would still continue to decline in the future.

The increase would be about $15.81 per $100,000 home, said Business Manager Mark Lemer. However, taxable value - which is set by the city or county each year - has been increasing and has caused some confusion for taxpayers.

"We want to be clear the district has no control over taxable value on a home," Superintendent Beth Slette said. "We do understand homes are being valued at a higher rate each year, so even though the $15.80 doesn't change, values could."

The school board decided to ask voters to approve a referendum in order to keep up with the district's fast-paced growth, especially in the middle and high school levels. Both Sheyenne High School and West Fargo High School will be over the combined capacity of 3,100 by 2021. Liberty Middle School is expected to be at capacity by the fall, with Cheney Middle School soon to follow.

West Fargo resident Peter Hettwer has asked the school board to find ways to slow its growth rather than asking voters to pass a bond. Hettwer said his taxes have gone up due to increasing valuations.

"Our property value in the last three years went up 33 percent," Hettwer said.

If the bond is approved, the middle school and high school would be built on land the district owns near Horace. The middle school would be built first and open in 2020, while the new high school would open a year later.

The referendum needs a 60 percent yes vote in order to pass. If the bond fails, the school district must wait at least 65 days before attempting to take the issue to voters again.

The referendum includes these details:

  • $88.5 million for a new middle school with a capacity of 800 and high school with the capacity of 1,000.
  • $3 million for Harwood gym addition and a secure entrance.
  • $3 million for basic installation of artificial fields at all three high schools.
  • $1.525 million for art and gifted classrooms at elementaries that do not have them.
  • $2 million for general security upgrades such as remodeled entrances, camera systems and blue light systems.
  • $2.1 million for secured entrances at the elementary schools that do not have them.
  • $6.8 million for Horace addition to create a four-track school, or four classes for each grade.

The board considered building a single building for grades six through 12 with a capacity of 1,500, which would have cost about $67 million. But the district would likely run into overcrowding again and may have to build yet again soon after, Lemer said. Building two schools gives the district more flexibility if it has to add on to the new facilities, he said.

The school district held its first community forum about the bond on Sept. 12, during which the less than two dozen residents in attendance voiced little opposition. However, some residents have questioned if the turf project is truly needed.

"A big thing we have to look at is if they are needs or are they wants," said West Fargo resident Steve Marquart at a recent school board meeting. "The turf, I think, is a want."

Allen Burgad, assistant superintendent of secondary education, said the artificial turf would allow more use of the fields than natural fields currently do, and turf has been proven to be less conducive to injuries than natural fields.

The school district had committed to giving $1 milion from the building fund to help pay for artificial turf at the existing two high schools, while the Mustang and Packer booster clubs are working to raise about $2 million for the three fields.

However, the booster clubs had raised only about $600,000 after nearly a year of effort.

Slette said that turf was included because as enrollment continues to grow, so will the district's need for green space at all the schools for not just soccer and football, but for physical education and other extracurricular events.

"If we use a synthetic turf instead of grass, we have more green space," Slette said. "If we do not put in synthetic turf, we would have to find more land or green space for student activities.

It does come back to enrollment increases we are seeing in the past and the future. We want to continue to provide equitable experiences for our students, regardless of the neighborhood."

The bond mirrors the projections of the community task force that was formed in 2015 to pass the $98.1 million bond. The referendum that overwhelmingly passed helped pay for two new elementary schools, additions to West Fargo High School and other buildings as well as a new hockey arena and aquatic center.