BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Fort Madison school district voters again failed to pass a referendum to construct a new PreK-3rd grade elementary school.
At today’s special election, the school district got a majority of the votes, but not a 60% super majority which is required by Iowa Code to pass the referendum, with 55.6% of voters voting in favor of the new school.
The two precincts in Fort Madison voted 752-546 in favor of the $27 million referendum which would have paid for the construction of the school and two high school ball fields. However that only amounted to 57.5%.
Residents voting in West Point opposed the measure overwhelmingly 124-241, while voters at Grace Bible Church in Wever opposed the new facility 121-125.
The absentee ballots that came in about five minutes after the closing of the polls, gave those gathered at Atlas Steak and Smokehouse to watch the results reason to cheer when they came in at 64% in favor of the new construction. But as voting precincts came in the percentage dwindled and stood at 58.9% with only West Point totals to come in.
“We were this close, unfortunately some people out there didn’t believe in our kids,” said Renee Ehlers, who chaired the KIDS Committee spearheading the effort.
Superintendent Erin Slater told the gathering the district will keep fighting to provide for the kids of Fort Madison.
“The word got out, more people were engaged. It wasn’t the percentage we needed, but I’m very proud of the people who got us to where we are,” she told the group.
When asked what happens next, Slater said that will be a discussion for the KIDS Committee and the Fort Madison School Board.
“I think we wholeheartedly still believe in the question that was asked. The board will reconvene, the committee will reconvene, and we’ll figure out what our next steps are because Fort Madison is not done doing what’s best for our kids,” Slater said.
“I’m very disappointed. We did get closer than we did last time and people gave an affirmative response, but it’s disappointing that we didn’t get it done.”
Fort Madison School Board president Timm Lamb said he thought the absentees would come in better and carry the issue in favor of the new building.
“I was hoping the absentee ballots would be closer to 80% yes – and that set the tone right there. A lot more people voted and you pass it, but you don’t pass it by enough,” he said.
He said the result was disappointing and didn’t have an answer for where the district would turn.
“It’s disappointing and I think – you know, when are we going to worry about the kids in this town. We got 100-year-old buildings that we can’t even renovate without a bond.
If we want to be progressive, when are we going to start doing things in this community. I don’t want to pay more taxes either but if we want to get things done that’s the American way. It’s depressing from a standpoint of what are we doing for our kids. What are we doing here?” Lamb said.
Ehlers said as a parent she will keep advocating for the children, but said she’s not sure where the opposition is coming from.
“I don’t know, I feel like we tried to hit all the bases. We did door-to-door, mailings, social media. Nobody wants their property taxes raised, they’re on a tight budget, but we have to have progress. If we don’t support these kids now, we’re going to be supporting them forever. We have one of the highest unemployment rates in Lee County. We have a high child abuse rate in Lee County so when are we going to do something for these kids,” Ehlers said.
“We need to get our kids what they deserve – whether that’s a new school or an improved school. Since this has failed twice, we may have to look at renovating. And I’m told we don’t have the money to do that,” she said.
School board member Tim Wondra said he’s at a loss as to how to get 60%.
“I’m just very frustrated and disappointed with the outcome of this vote. I don’t know what more we can do to show the voters we are not trying to pull anything past them and to show them there truly is a need for a new elementary school,” he said.
“Construction costs will not go down and material costs will not go down.”
The school district has indicated it will cost close to $34 million to renovate the two current elementary schools, an amount they say that can’t get without another bond referendum.
“I thought this was one step in bringing this whole district in the right direction. All the people who look at coming into town ask what are the schools like. They may come here but they sure aren’t going to live here,” Lamb said.