BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Voters in southeast Iowa shot down two attempts to improve school facilities for area students on Tuesday.
The third time wasn’t charming for Fort Madison School district residents hoping to secure funding for a new $30 million Prek-3 elementary school. Voters just missed approving the bond with a 59.2% approval. State law in Iowa requires a 60% plus one vote. Total votes for the issue were 1,747 yes and 1,202 no votes.
Absentee ballots were up almost 600 from the last referendum attempt in 2017 with 1,402 ballots cast at 67.3%, but Superintendent Erin Slater said she was hoping for a higher percentage in that effort.
Fort Madison voters on election day at the Fort Madison Public Library numbered 846, and missed approving the measure at that polling location with 59.7% voting for the new building. West Point voters split at 35.6% to 64.4% against the effort. And Grace Bible Church in Wever reported with 246 ballots cast with 55.7% in favor of the new building.
In the Central Lee referendum effort, which was for $9.8 million, 1,243 votes were cast with only 56.4% of voters in support of the new facilities.
The district got 308 absentee ballots, which was 64.6%, but on Tuesday’s polling only 53.4% of district residents who cast a ballot voted for the measure.
The district was looking to expand the high school building, add common areas, improve entry ways in both district buildings to improve security, create a new childhood center, and improve parking conditions.
Fort Madison Superintendent Erin Slater and Board President Tim Wondra said the election was close enough that they may ask the county to recount the ballots.
“You know when you get that close of a margin with that voter turnout, I think it makes sense to take another look at it,” Slater said.
Wondra said he wasn’t done fighting whether that comes in the form of a recount or another shot at passing a referendum.
“I think that’s close enough to take a look at it,” Wondra said. “I’m not done fighting this yet.”
Slater said she was specifically disappointed in the absentee performance and that the Fort Madison voters didn’t carry the election. West Point voters have continued to vote heavily against the district getting a new school and Fort Madison school officials were hoping absentee and local voting would help offset the West Point vote. Holy Trinity Catholic in West Point recently raised private funds to construct a new $6 elementary addition, which will begin construction towards the end of the school year.
“We could have shown better in Fort Madison. We actually anticipated, with the higher number of absentee ballots, that this percentage would be higher for our yes returns. That was surprising to us. We had about 800 last time with a 64%, but with the increased numbers we thought that would be better.”
“We all know that a strong public school system is the best for everyone,” she told the crowd after the final numbers were posted. “Just for some history and perspective, Fort Madison hasn’t passed a bond to raise taxes in 30 years and we were asking for less than $3/month from the average homeowner. It’s difficult to understand how any good person can vote against the safety of our children and the well-being and future of Fort Madison.”
“We’re disappointed that we fell short of the 60%, but we’re grateful for those who rallied, posted, wrote letters, made phone calls, and most of all those who did vote for our kids. We will rally around and we’ll come back around and tap you on the shoulder. We’ll continue to fight for what’s best for our kids and our community. This doesn’t start and stop. Get used to it.”
Wondra said it paints a picture of a me-first society.
“I remember growing up and my grandparents and parents wanted better for the kids than they had themselves,” he said. “We’ve become such a me-first society. And it starts with the oldest generations out there. We’re not setting a good example for our kids, here.”
Wondra thanked the community and said in any other election except state school bond referendums, the group would be celebrating.
“I’m very disappointed, I gotta thank everyone who stepped up to help,” he said “We had a lot of community support – 59.2% anywhere else we’re jumping up and down and shouting ‘Yes’. We’re down, but we’re not out. We’re gonna come back for more. Our children deserve better. We gotta do better for our kids.”
Board member Gayla Young said she was disheartened that people who voted no didn’t take advantage of the opportunities to have questions and concerns addressed by school staff, officials, and board members.
“We had tours, we had meetings, and our emails are public. Do you know how many people emailed me for information – zero. I can’t believe that there are people out there that don’t want what’s best for these kids.”
Emily Settles, the principal at Richardson, said she thought the results indicated that people just haven’t been really exposed to the problems that exist in the current elementary schools.
“I would say that we just haven’t had enough people in the buildings to understand the reality of what’s realy happening. The invitation is always out there to come and see us, I just don’t think they understand what’s going on,” she said.
Slater said the next steps are to, again, evaluate the results sitting with the board, and look at state election regulations to see what options are out there to have the referendum considered again.
“We still believe this is the right thing for Fort Madison and the younger students. We need to figure out how to correct the misinformation voters used to vote no,” she said.