School Board Reform

Our Willmar Town meeting of October 26 revealed an astonishingly high level of frustration concerning the recent passage of a $52 million school bond referendum.

The referendum itself was fraught with scheming and manipulation.

Rather than holding the referendum during the current general election, whose likely record-setting voter turnout would undoubtedly reveal the true wishes of the people, the refendum was held as a one-off episode in a non-election period; the most likely scheme for minimizing voter turnout for all but those voters who really wanted the bond to pass. Unlike the voting procedure with which Willmarites are accustomed - nine polling stations with election judges presiding - the bond referendum used only one polling station - the school superintendent’s office - with no judges presiding. Not surprisingly, voter turnout was low in the extreme - about 5% of eligible voters turned out. Of those, all it took was the affirmative vote of about 300 voters to put the city of Willmar under a new debt load, including interest payments and school equipment, of nearly $100 million.

Think about it. Less than 3% of the voting population owned the legal authority to approve $100 million debt. It may well be that 150 households pulled the trigger on a $100 million tax bill.

That’s not democracy. That’s special interest politics, orchestrated by non-elected school department bureaucrats, under the rubber stamp of an elected school board.

I propose two actions that could go a long way towards assuring Willmar taxpayers that this kind of chicanery does not happen again.

One…amend the City Charter with a requirement that all referendums must elicit a voter turnout of at least 30% in order to be valid. Were that the case, the school bond referendum would have failed before a single ballot was counted.

It’s not the responsibility of taxpayers to defend why they have the right to keep their hard-earned money in their own pockets, where it belongs. It is the responsibility of the school district to build a sufficiently persuasive case for voters to come out to vote.

Second…the voters need to send a message to the school board. When school board members allow this kind of subterfuge, we need to make sure our response is swift and unambiguous.

Vote them out.

On November 8, incumbent school board members Justin Bos, Mike Reynolds, and Jackie Saulsberg are asking to be re-elected.

Voting the incumbents out, by voting for challengers Tammy Barnes, Scott Thaden, and Brian Kath, enables the voters to send two messages.

One: run roughshod over taxpayers, and you’re out!

Two: to those incumbents remaining, straighten up and fly right, or you will be next.

The power of the votes, fellow Willmarites. Use it!