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Money issues key in Fargo school race

Money issues predominate again in the Fargo School Board election, but this time, rather than looming budget cuts or keeping schools open, it's a property tax protest measure and finding new ways to raise revenue.

Money issues predominate again in the Fargo School Board election, but this time, rather than looming budget cuts or keeping schools open, it's a property tax protest measure and finding new ways to raise revenue.

Incoming board members could face a cap on the district's mill levy, crimping their ability to raise funds.

At the same time, possible alternatives -- selling goods or services or a local sales tax -- have produced sharp differences among candidates.

The board's current "policy governance" style of operation has also been criticized by challengers as too detached.

There are five candidates running for three seats.


Incumbent Jim Johnson is unopposed for a two-year seat on the board.

Running for the two, four-year terms are: Incumbent Mari McCullough and challengers Richard D. Knutson, Arlette Preston and Rick Steen.

Jim Johnson

Johnson, a pension and employee benefits consultant and continuing education instructor, said he brings "imagination and creativity to an already good school district."

Johnson has an ambitious wish list:

- Improve professional development for teachers;

- Find new revenues;

- Lower the dropout rate;


- Improve gifted and talented programs.

Johnson said the district needs revenues that are not taxpayer-based, including: selling space for "non-blatant" advertising, selling curriculum software created by staff, and having building trades students build homes on site, rather than at the school, to increase income.

He said the board must take part in contract talks with teachers, not leave that to administrators, which creates adversarial relationships.

He also wants to mend fences with the community.

"I am a believer that communication has been a big problem for the board and the district," he said. "I think that's a strength I can bring."

Rick Steen

Steen, a certified public accountant with Eide Bailly in Fargo, says policy governance doesn't work for the Fargo School District.

"I think the board needs to become more engaged," he said.


In the next four years, he said, the long-range facilities plan will be critical to operations. He also wants to protect curriculum if a cap on the mill levy is approved.

Steen doesn't want the district competing with small businesses to increase revenues. He's also opposed to sales taxes. But a state lottery to fund education is fine.

"I look at it as a voluntary tax," he said.

Getting more aid from foundations and using district resources as an Internet service provider also appeal to him.

He said his experience as a CPA for the last 23 years -- especially with nonprofit groups and public finance -- will help guide the board through financial challenges.

Richard D. Knutson

"The No. 1 thing is to see better communication with the taxpayers of the Fargo School District. In the past, the communication has been poor," Knutson said.

Knutson, the owner of Genetron Technologies, wants openness and would champion board members' rights to speak their minds.


"I am not convinced that policy governance is the way to go," he said.

The district must be creative to fund education, "but I'm totally against competing against private businesses," he said. "I think that building business partnerships is more to the district's advantage, whether it's selling advertising or naming rights. "

He said more must also be done to fight substance abuse in the schools.

But, he's not worried about a cap on the mill levy.

"The property tax in Fargo is so high that it's made us noncompetitive with our neighbors in Moorhead and West Fargo," he said.

Mari McCullough

McCullough, a three-year veteran of the board, wants to see the district's long-range facilities plan completed, and have it melded with budgeting into the strategic plan.

She wants "education goals" to drive the district's decisions.


Inadequate state and federal funding and split grade configurations for north and south Fargo pose problems, she said.

Policy governance, she said, must be improved, but it's an improvement over the past.

"Policy governance has given the board more control and oversight. We direct what we want from the administration, rather than just accepting what they give us."

Capping the mill levy is fiscally irresponsible, she said, because it could force expensive votes for teacher raises and to keep or add programs.

But she's still weighing revenue-raising options. So far, she doesn't like competing with local businesses or a local sales tax.

Arlette Preston

Preston wants to bring stability to the district's tax base, improve graduation rates, and get the district's decisions about facilities "put to rest."

At the same time, she would modify the board's policy governance style, saying that the board gives up too much oversight to administrators.


"I do think they've become too far removed," she said.

"Public discussions can't be stifled, and that's what I think is happening," she said. Policy governance "needs to be drastically modified."

Preston likes capping the mill levy to ease tax pressures, but won't back competing with local firms for new revenues.

Instead, she said a lottery dedicated to education or a local sales tax -- with a percentage tied to cutting property taxes -- is the way to go.

"I truly believe a sales tax initiative should be looked at," she said. "I think there needs to be some property tax relief."

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583

Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at hschmidt@forumcomm.com, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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