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Supporters of $11M referendum for Thompson school look to next steps after narrow defeat

THOMPSON, N.D.--The failure of an $11 million school bond referendum to expand Thompson Public School is weighing heavily on those who have campaigned for its approval.

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John Maus is the superintendent at the Thompson, ND, school. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)

THOMPSON, N.D.-The failure of an $11 million school bond referendum to expand Thompson Public School is weighing heavily on those who have campaigned for its approval.

"Heartbreaking is an understatement," said Deb Kolling, a member of the Thompson Vote Yes/Yes Committee, which was formed to raise support for the referendum.

Though the vote took place Tuesday, the school district waited until Wednesday morning to reveal unofficial results showing 582 people favored the project and 399 voters cast ballots against it. The results put 59.3 percent of voters in favor of the referendum, but it needed a 60 percent supermajority to pass.

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In total, 981 votes were counted, and the referendum would have needed 589 of those to be cast as "yes" votes-seven more than were tallied Tuesday night.

For the School Board and administrators, the results mean it's time to regroup-again. This is the third time such a referendum has failed at the polls since 2012.

"The kids are receiving a quality education and they will continue to do so," School Board President Shannon Webber said. "The board and the administration are going to study our options for the next few months. We're going to come up with a long-term plan, and we're going to move forward."

Though the vote count was close, Webber doesn't foresee a recount occurring. For now, the district will assess its priorities and determine which ones would be considered short-term needs that can be accommodated by its budget. Superintendent John Maus has been making recommendations for the upcoming year, Weber said.

"We're pretty confident in what we need to do to be able to address our immediate needs," she added. "For the future, there's a number of options to explore, and we will study them and pick whichever ones best address our priorities and our needs."

Planning for growth

The district has a long list of needs for Thompson Public School, which houses both an elementary and high school.

Classroom space already is at a premium in the elementary school, so relocating offices and then renovating to provide additional classrooms is an example Webber gave as a short-term fix.


The proposed expansion would have included adding elementary classrooms, a career and technical education wing and a gym while repurposing other areas of the building.

The proposal aimed to address significant growth that is predicted in the district during its long-range planning efforts.

"I have a fourth-grader, a second-grader and a soon-to-be kindergartener," Kolling said. "When you know that change isn't coming fast enough for our kids so they have adequate space for our educators to properly provide their education, it's hard."

A projection released last year by the school district shows enrollment in Thompson is could grow from 481 students this school year to 607 students in the 2024-25 school year-an increase of 26.2 percent.

The district's enrollment recorded this past fall has surpassed the estimated total for this school year, with 494 students counted, which is up 33 students from the 2014-15 timeframe, according to state Department of Public Instruction data.

Rising from defeat

Preparing for growth has been a goal of the school district for the past several years.

The first time the district tried for the referendum in 2012, it fell short of approving a $3.4 million building project. The next year, a $4.5 million expansion also failed at the polls. Votes cast in favor of those referendums came in at 50 and 52 percent respectively.


The most recent referendum called for $11 million that would have been collected from property taxes over the course of 20 years.

For the owner of a $177,500 home,-the average value of a home in Grand Forks County-it would have meant a $485 tax increase to his or her annual property tax bill.

Expressed another way, the expansion would have totaled 60.79 mills-the unit used for property tax rates. If added to the district's 2015-16 mill levy, it would have increased it from 72.36 to 133.15 mills. The increase would have put it in range with other area school districts such as Grafton, Hillsboro and Larimore, which levy between 83 and 145.02 mills.

Another defeat is hard to swallow for those in the district and on the Thompson Vote Yes/Yes Committee, but both Kolling and Webber can see the positives behind the vote counts.

"I think we have it, but I think we just need to keep fine tuning what we're doing and moving forward," Kolling said.

The most recent referendum saw the highest voting turnout yet, and it's something district leaders hope to continue to see as they determine what's next for the school.

"That support yesterday was overwhelming-just tremendous," Webber said Wednesday. "And that doesn't go away. With the support and the fantastic leadership and talent we have at the school, we're going to move forward and we're looking forward to a bright future."

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