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Voters say no to school plan, back to drawing board

A long line of voters filed in to the Detroit Lakes Middle School just after polls opened at 2 p.m. Tuesday. The Detroit Lakes School District was asking voters to pass a $59 million building referendum to construct a new K-3 elementary school and make district-wide building improvements. Brian Basham/DL NEWSPAPERS

Voters in the Detroit Lakes School District have spoken, and they said ‘no’ to the $59 million school bond referendum that was up for vote Tuesday. 

The final vote count, including absentee ballots, was 1,883 no votes; 1,334 yes votes.

Lines at the Middle School and High School polling places were long throughout much of the afternoon and evening. Polls were open from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Superintendent Doug Froke said the outcome was disappointing to many in the community that have worked hard on the plan. But the district will move on from here.

“The voters have spoken; they told us they did not like the plan we put forward, but on the flip side that doesn’t change what the district has in terms of issues before them,” he said. “So if that proposal was not accepted — and with that margin it clearly not accepted — we have to look at other solutions and maybe some folks have ideas.”

Under the plan, the school would have gotten a new K-3 elementary school to address the growing space issues that growing enrollment has caused, as well as several district-wide improvements.

Before the election, area residents seemed fairly quiet on the issue, and now Froke says he knows why.  “People don’t always tell people they’re voting no on school issues because they don’t want others thinking they don’t support the kids,” said Froke, who says now the school board and district leaders must go back to the drawing board.

“Because these issues aren’t going away,” said Froke. “We thought we had done a good job in getting input from the community when we developed the plan, but apparently we need to gather some more information on what to do … specifically with our space and safety issues, because they’re not going away.”

Laker Vote ‘Yes’ Committee Chairs Matt Boeke and Natalie Bly say they can’t really understand why Detroit Lakes voters would shoot down something that is in the best interest of the kids, can only speculate that not enough people agreed with the location, the tax increase or the scope of the project.

“It was big, but it’s what we need,” said Boeke, who says they will continue to fight for the next plan that school leaders come up with because the needs will not disappear. “We will put in more volunteer hours until this becomes reality,” Bly added.

Meanwhile, reaction to the vote is mixed throughout the community with those in favor of the plan much more willing to publicly express their disappointment.

Detroit Lakes resident Sam Rufer says he and his wife moved to town seven years ago primarily because “it is a healthy, growing, successful community,” he said. “There are not many communities in outstate Minnesota like that,” said Rufer, who has two young children. “If people continue to make ill-informed choices like they did today, those qualities will not last for long in Detroit Lakes.”

School board chair Terrie Boyd says she knows the long lines at the polling sites had some potential voters simply walking away before voting.  And while she says she doesn’t know if that would have made a difference in the outcome, she does say next go-around, the way things are run at the polls needs to change.

“Maybe we need to adjust the times so that people have more time to vote, or maybe we need more election judges so that people can be ushered through quicker,” said Boyd. “But just because we’re told no for this plan, doesn’t change the need, it just changes the plan.”

Boyd says although she’s confident the board and administration did everything they could to get the community involved with developing the plan and aren’t sure what needs to be changed going forward, they are ready to back up, research what people didn’t like about the plan, and do it again.

“It didn’t happen this time around,” said Boyd. “But right now we have needs in our school district that are not being met, so we have to figure out a way to do this — our kids are worth it.”

Building bond referendums did pass in Pelican Rapids and Hawley school districts, as did an operating levy in Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton.