Fate of $133M bond referendum for West Fargo Public Schools in hands of voters this fall
Projects included in the referendum were recommended by a "long-range facilities task force" comprised of community and district members who met once a month starting in late 2022
WEST FARGO — In four months West Fargo voters will decide whether to approve a $133.4 million bond referendum for building expansions and upgrades the West Fargo School District says is needed to keep up with explosive growth.
The West Fargo School Board on Monday, May 22, unanimously approved sending the recommended bond referendum to voters on Sept. 26.
Projects included in the referendum were recommended by a "long-range facilities task force" comprised of community and district members who met once a month starting in late 2022 to decide on what needs the district should consider in a future bond. Proposed projects would be added to the referendum if it received 80% approval.
Superintendent Beth Slette on Monday said the task force was the "largest we've had in our history," comprising of parents, community members and leaders from West Fargo, Fargo and Moorhead.
"We only ask taxpayers for the money when we know that we need it in the next five years," Business Manager Levi Bachmeier said.
The final list includes everything from renovations, additions, expansions, land and an entirely new school.
Items in the bond referendum from previous meetings include:
- An additional elementary school to serve the Horace feeder system for $34.8 million.
- Expansion of Heritage Middle School from 900 to a capacity level of 1,200, for $19.6 million.
- Expansion to 1,500 capacity of Horace High School, which opened in 2021 with a capacity of 1,200, for $32.4 million.
- Adding a multipurpose room at West Fargo High School for $1.4 million.
- Additional land north of 12th Avenue North for an estimated $5 million.
- Cost sharing with West Fargo Hockey Association for a third sheet of ice at Veterans Memorial Arena for $5 million.
- Equitable spaces for elementary schools, $1.9 million.
- Secondary flexible seating for $1.5 million.
- South Elementary improvements and expansion for up to $15.2 million.
- Early childhood special education expansion in the southern part of the district for up to $8 million.
- Renovation and expansions across existing district facilities for $11.2 million.
- Fire sprinkler systems for Westside, South and Eastwood Elementary Schools; increased interior door installation to provide additional protection in the event of a perimeter breach, and improvements and expansion of the district’s camera surveillance system for $2.2 million.
Frank Lenzmeier, a longtime resident and long-range facilities task force member during all three formations in 2015, 2018 and 2023, said the bond referendum is needed badly due to the fast growth of the district. It wouldn't surprise him if the district eventually has to consider a fourth high school and feeder system, he added.
Bachmeier estimates that a successful $133.4 million bond impact would increase the mill levy by a range of 2 to 14 mills, depending on which projects the district decides to complete in any given year.
As a result, the highest increase to taxes to a home valued at about $100,000 would be $72. That number is not likely to be reached, however, Bachmeier said. The district is trying to keep the impact on taxpayers as small as possible, even after it is approved, he said.
Bachmeier said the impact could also be considerably less after the North Dakota Legislature passed a $500 property tax credit over the next biennium.
"Homes would need to have valuations exceeding $800,000 to pay more than their credit would be valued at under this proposal," he said. "There was also a significant expansion of the homestead tax credit, providing significant relief to income-restricted residents over the age of 65."
Bachmeier said the impact will be similar to the bond passed in 2018, which has been offset over the years by the growth and increasing valuations in the district.
"Yes, this is the biggest (bond) number in history, but the tax base is the biggest it's ever been," Bachmeier said. "The goal is to keep this as no more burdensome than it was in 2018."
Even with the highest projected bond and mill levy, the West Fargo School District taxes still remain lower than the Fargo School District. Despite the large bond referendums in recent years, the district has been able to hold its mill levy steady, or decrease it such as in 2022 when mills fell by 7.06 due to retired and restructured debt.
In recent years, voters have overwhelmingly approved referendums supporting additional space. In 2018, 71% of voters approved passing the $106.9 million referendum, which will be used to build a third high school and middle school as well as additions to elementary schools, security upgrades and three artificial turf fields.
The large bond was passed just three years after 80% of voters approved a $98.1 million bond in September 2015, which was used to build two elementary schools as well as the $18.5 million Hulbert Aquatic Center and a $16.5 million West Fargo Sports Arena.
A supermajority of 60% of voters is needed to approve the bond referendum.
West Fargo Public Schools surpassed Fargo in 2020 to become the state's second largest school district, just behind Bismarck Public Schools with more than 12,700 students and three high schools that will be fed by 15 elementary schools in the fall of 2024 when Meadowlark Elementary School opens.