BY CHUCK VANDENBERG – EDITOR
FORT MADISON – As has been recent history with trying to get new buildings constructed in Lee County, a special election Tuesday night sent school district officials back to the drawing board on how to get a new elementary school built on the campus off Bluff Road.
The district needed 60% +1 vote to pass the bond issue on Tuesday, but came up short with only 49% with a 714-756 tally against the new construction, as the Fort Madison Public Library at times had people lined up outside the building to cast votes. One voter indicated the facility ran out of paper ballots and all people were using computer ballots to cast votes slowing the process.
The bond would have provided $27 million to build a new Prek-3 school on ground out in the vicinity of the junior high school constructed a mere four years ago. That building was built with special state financing that kicked in off a local option program, a program that was not available for this new construction.
Fort Madison Superintendent Erin Slater was disappointed with the news but encouraged by the number of people who came out to vote and the capacity of the district to let their voices be heard.
“I think our community turned out in bigger numbers than in the past and we had a higher percentage of support than in the past and I’m very grateful how the district came out and let us know how they felt about our questions,” Slater said after the results had been made official at about 9 p.m. Tuesday. Our job will be to continue to listen to the community and figure out what steps to take next.”
Fort Madison Community School District Chairman Timm Lamb said he too was disappointed in the results and thought district voters had some preconceived notions that could have been addressed if they had visited the buildings.
“It was disappointing that it didn’t pass,” Lamb said.
“You know, it’s interesting. Today we were doing things to get people to come out and vote and most people hadn’t talked to anyone who was against it. But maybe we weren’t talking to the right people or they were telling us what we wanted to hear. My personal opinion is that people had their minds made up before we started the process and weren’t willing to come out and listen to what we were saying.”
But both Lamb and Slater said the citizens committee formed to help the get the bond passed will debrief and try to figure out what’s next.
“We plan on having additional community forums to hear from the community to see what their interests are,” Slater said.
During the national general election in November, a ballot to build one Lee County Courthouse to service all of Lee County was shot down heavily by voters and Slater said she was concerned with that outcome.
“I was concerned about what impact that vote would have on the community and their perception of a voted referendum, she said.
She also said most of the social media chatter and feedback was on logistical issues and not necessarily price.
“We did hear mostly through social media that there were questions of transportation and the location of the building. So the land that the district owns is the land off 48th and Bluff and that will continue to be where, if voters approve it, where the new building will be built,” Slater said.
“Based on what we were hearing there were more logistical concerns. We did not hear the tax impact concern. But there may have been that concern that just wasn’t passed through the social media to us.”
Slater thanked those that supported the district and said it’s just time to reflect what the district now knows and what the voters have told them.
“I’d like to thank the citizens committee for their support and getting information out to the rest of the community regarding the needs of our school district. I’d like to thank the community for taking time to vote and letting us put the information in front of them.”
Lamb said this effort had greater impact and reach than the previous effort to bond for the funds for the junior high.
“We definitely did a lot better. I think we were much more transparent, much more open with what was going on and we wanted to let the public know what was out there and getting people thinking about,” Lamb said. Just doing a lot of those things helped, apparently didn’t help enough, but got people thinking about what was going on. Erin did a great job, being new here, about getting the word out about the district.”
“I think we need to just sit back and just see what all happened, have some time and see where we need to go. What we did right and what we did wrong.”
But he did end with saying that people who thought the school district should have taken better care of the buildings needed to come out and see for themselves.
“You hear comments like ‘the school district should have taken better care of the buildings and we wouldn’t have been in this problem’.” But when you look at the schools they were very well taken care of…. very clean, but they’re 100 years old and what are you going to do?” Lamb said. “You can’t drill holes in them, there’s asbestos in there and those kinds of things and you can’t get around that. But if they were wiling to come and look at the buildings and talk to people you could have gotten answers.”