Grand Forks voters rejected two initiatives in a special school referendum Tuesday, June 22, defeating proposals to raise property taxes and, in effect, sending education leaders back to the drawing board.
According to early and unofficial results, the $86 million bond issue failed with 30.77% yes votes and the 10-mill increase for the district's building fund failed with 54.6% yes votes. Each question fell short of the 60% needed for passage.
A total of 5,423 ballots were cast in the special election. Because some voters did not answer both questions on the ballot, total vote counts may be inconsistent, according to school district officials.
Regarding the $86 million bond issue, there were 1,658 yes votes and 3,758 no votes.
On the question of the 10-mill increase for the district’s building fund, there 2,942 yes votes and 2,476 no votes.
After polls closed at 7 p.m. at the Alerus Center, ballots were counted by hand and results were not available until shortly after 11 p.m.
The School Board will hold a special meeting Monday, June 28, to conduct the official canvass of results, a district official said in a news release.
The $86 million bond issue would have allowed the district to construct a new, $64 million, K-8 school, with an enrollment of about 1,000, on the city’s north side. It also would have consolidated Wilder and Winship elementary schools and replaced West Elementary and Valley Middle School. The elementary and middle schools would have been conjoined by shared space in the middle, but each school would have had its own lunchrooms and gyms. West has been closed for more than a year due to unsafe levels of radon and other facility issues.
The bond issue also would have paid for construction of a new central kitchen for the district at the Mark Sanford Education Center in south Grand Forks, and would have paid for other high-priority infrastructure repairs and improvements throughout the district.
The monthly tax impact was estimated to be an $8.23 increase per $100,000 in assessed property value.
The increase in the mill levy, which would have generated about $2.5 million each year, was set to position the school district to maintain its facilities. The funds generated would have taken pressure off the district's general fund, so that general fund proceeds could focus on student and staff needs, such as student programs, learning materials, compensation and benefits, said Tracy Jentz, communications and community engagement coordinator.
"The school system has had to transfer over $10 million from the general fund to the building fund for emergency needs," Jentz said.
The monthly tax impact would have been a $3.75 increase per $100,000 in assessed property value.
Residents have been considering the issues for months, but have been weighing in more intensely and publicly in the past few weeks, as evidenced by letters to the editor of the Herald prior to Tuesday's vote.
Eric Lunn, vice president of the School Board, said in a recent letter, said he was writing not as a School Board member, he said, but as a taxpayer, father and grandfather, that the Grand Forks school district receives a much lower percentage of property taxes (31%) than do the Bismarck, West Fargo and Fargo school districts (46-53%).
State funding for schools “has been flat or minimal for several years,” he said.
“If the referendum fails,” Lunn said in his June 19 letter, “the financial issues of the school district will continue to worsen over time. This will undoubtedly lead to further reductions in the budget, most likely leading to further staff reductions and elimination of programs. None of that will allow the district to help our children grow together to enrich the world.”
Gordon Iseminger, UND Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of History, wrote in a recent letter to the editor that he supports the mill levy increase but not the bond referendum. “Children should be educated in the best possible way. They are not commodities to be processed in the most cost-efficient way,” he said.
“At a far lower cost than that requested by the bond issue, and without so many negative consequences, the four schools in question could be modernized by correcting their deficiencies. They would then continue to serve their intended purpose -- that of being neighborhood schools that bring people together in neighborhoods.”