Longtime West Fargo Public Schools' attorney retires after 50 years
After helping usher in the exponential growth for five decades and serving under all but one superintendent, Jon Arntson of Arntson Stewart Wegner legal firm retired at the end of 2021.
WEST FARGO — The West Fargo School District has grown exponentially over the past 50 years, building about 15 elementary schools and three junior and senior high schools.
And while the faces of the district have changed, one man remained a constant: Attorney Jon M. Arntson.
After helping usher in the exponential growth for five decades and serving under all but one superintendent, Arntson of Arntson Stewart Wegner legal firm retired at the end of 2021.
“Jon was an incredible asset to West Fargo Public Schools,” Superintendent Beth Slette said. “For decades, he provided sound legal advice on a wide range of topics to the school board and administration, including assisting any time we had to bond for school construction. While his services will most certainly be missed, it is his caring nature and impeccable character that will be most difficult to replace.”
Arntson officially retired on Dec. 31 after wrapping up one of his last goals, which was to assist in the building of the district’s third high school, Horace High School.
“I’m really looking forward to retirement; it’s the right time,” Arntson said. “But to get from here to there is very difficult. I’m going to be leaving some wonderful people that I’ve worked with for years. My partners are just great fellows, and the ladies that work for us are just terrific. We’ve been together a long, long time, so it’s difficult to leave.”
Arntson began his legal career working for a local firm which held the West Fargo School District as a client. The district’s second superintendent, L.E. Berger, was nearing the end of his 25 years as head of the district when he and Arntson began working together.
Arntson, who has now worked with every superintendent other than the very first one, said West Fargo has been lucky to have those leaders.
“They all had their strengths," he said. "Over the years, the West Fargo school district has had the right leadership at the right time because it’s seen phenomenal growth."
The New Rockford, North Dakota, native and Creighton University graduate started his own firm in the 1980s, working for many years solo until Jim Stewart joined him later in the decade. Scott Wagner came aboard soon after, opening the Bismarck office.
Arntson’s reputation as a successful bonding attorney has grown across the state. Along with West Fargo Schools, Arntson helped with bond financing for the University of North Dakota and Fargo Public Schools, as well.
Along with being a bond attorney, Arntson and the firm have long worked on Housing and Urban Development closings, which allow refinancing and mortgages for elderly and low-income families. He worked on HUD projects across the country over the years.
Although West Fargo currently enjoys a continually growing tax base, the school district saw times of struggle.
“Back then, Augie Kieller was the superintendent, and it was when the tax base was very low, so every penny was important,” Arntson said. “He really struggled, because he was getting students and needed to build but needed money because funds were tight.”
While Arntson has helped the district in its individual projects, he was also a strong advocate for the school district in front of the legislature.
Arntson, along with West Fargo legislators at the time, played key part in ensuring the growing school district would always retain what is now West Acres Shopping Mall in its tax base.
While the mall is now located in the city of Fargo, it was built in the West Fargo school district’s tax base. However, as Fargo grew, a state law that said school districts expand with city limits threatened to stunt the growth of West Fargo school district.
So, Arntson and West Fargo legislators worked to change the law, which was successful in not only keeping the tax base of West Acres but allowing the West Fargo school district to grow and include school buildings that are located in Fargo, Harwood and Horace.
“To have it change just to follow city boundaries didn’t make sense,” Arntson said. “West Acres was always part of the West Fargo School District. The West Fargo school district didn't take anything from the Fargo district. We wanted it to stay a part of the school district."
School boundaries were amond many successes Arntson had while working with the state legislature.
He was a key figure as the state rewrote its tax code. The initial change set the assessed value definition so that 10% of the true and full value of a property ended up being the assessed value.
“What that did was cut the bonding capacity in the state down to next to nothing,” Arntson said.
So, he helped draft a bill in a special session of the legislature that created a rule of assessed value being 50% of the true and full taxable value which helped restore bonding capabilities for all the school districts in the state.
He said the Legislature in North Dakota has been unique with its support of education.
“The legislature has stepped up and reduced the tax burden to the property owners,” he said. “It’s really unique, having the state take on a good part of the financing of the school districts. That’s been a little bit remarkable to me and well done by the governors in the legislature.”
While Arntson met his goal of helping with the third high school and junior high before retirement, he realizes the district will have continued growth, which he believes will be handled well by those at the helm of West Fargo Schools.
“It’s really been a transition to a big-time school district, and the district has done it very well,” he said. “When I look back at it, it’s really the people that made all of this journey so rewarding.”
Avid travelers, Arntson and his wife, Mary, hope to continue their adventures with more travel to Europe and road trips across the U.S.