School referendum tanks amidst widespread voter apathy

West Fargo school administrators went to the mat to promote the district’s $147 million bond referendum right up to the opening of polls this week on WZFG and other media outlets.

Representatives for West Fargo Public Schools are making a last minute plea, asking residents in the city to vote “yes” Tuesday on a school bond referendum. 

“We’re also the fastest growing school district, historically have been adding anywhere between you know, 4, 5 or 6 hundred students any given year. Those students need space,” said the the district’s business manager Levi Bachmeier. 

It was the culmination of a months-long campaign to stir up public support for a measure largely designed to increase classroom capacity in the rapidly expanding school district. Despite the big buildup, however, just seven percent of an estimated 56,000 eligible voters turned out for the oddly-timed September bond referendum.

The results tabulated by Forum News showed the measure fell far short of the total needed for approval, amid apparent widespread voter apathy.

The West Fargo Public Schools $147 million bond referendum failed Tuesday, Sept. 26, after district officials said low voter turnout likely contributed to the outcome.

Although the referendum failed to achieve the 60% threshold needed for the bond to pass, the votes for and against the measure were separated by only 11 votes.

In complete but unofficial results, the referendum received 1,915 yes votes compared to 1,926 no votes.

The clear cut outcome led some to second guess the wisdom of West Fargo district leaders asking voters to raise their property taxes for schools at the same time as other local government entities do the same. A Forum columnist also pointed out the loss comes as supporters of a petition to ban property taxes continue to gather the necessary number of signatures to put the measure on the statewide ballot next year.

Certainly, local governments around the state haven’t been shy about hiking property taxes yet again, even as voters might get an opportunity to do away with them. In West Fargo, school officials thought 60% of voters would voluntarily agree to another property tax hike.

That’s hubris — a gross misunderstanding of where the electorate is on property taxes.

They’re fed up. They’ve had enough. “I’m so frustrated … I’m voting for it,” a first-term Grand Forks County Commissioner Mark Rustad told me of the proposed property tax measure.

Meantime, it’s back to the drawing board for West Fargo school officials reeling not only over the outcome but how to accommodate a steady influx of students and get on the same page with wary voters.

In a statement to the district’s families, [Superintendent Beth] Slette said the vote results are not indicative of overall support for the school district and she thanked the families and community members for their work during the election.

“Our job now is to reconvene a task force, made up of new and returning perspectives, to help chart our next steps,” Slette said. “We also need to engage our community to better understand why voter turnout was low when compared to previous elections.”