Voters approve South Washington County Schools' three referendum questions

Body: 

A public survey in June did not generate optimism for School District 833’s referendum proponents. The survey of South Washington County School District residents suggested voters would reject school ballot measures raising property taxes.

The mood changed by last week, when voters agreed to pay more for classroom spending and to chip in for technology improvements over the next decade.

Voters who turned out for the Nov. 7 election overwhelmingly approved a renewal of the district’s largest operating levy, sparing the district of what administrators said would have been $15 million in spending cuts. They said the reductions would have reduced staff, increased class sizes and affected transportation and other programs. The district has a roughly $220 million operating budget.

“I’m just so grateful for our community and the support that they’ve shown us and the trust they’ve shown us to support where we’re going,” Superintendent Keith Jacobus said.

Question 1 of the three-measure referendum passed roughly 68-32 percent, according to preliminary results. The vote total was 8,793 to 4,123. It renewed a $780-per-pupil property tax levy that’s been on the books for 20 years and was last renewed a decade ago. It provides $15.3 million a year.

In a tougher test, the district won support for a property tax increase that will pump $7.5 million into the general fund each year. That measure passed nearly 52-48 percent. The vote breakdown was 6,705 to 6,199.

Question 2 was the second part of a two-step levy increase that started two years ago, when district leaders said a $900-per-pupil increase would be needed to maintain programming and build up depleted fund reserves. They split that increase over two elections. Voters approved a $525-per-pupil increase in 2015, leaving the $375-per-pupil request for this year’s ballot.

The district ran the referendum table with slimmer voter approval for Question 3, a $1 million annual increase for a 10-year capital levy. That revenue is intended for replacing aging classroom technology, such as iPads and tablets, and to pay for education software used for classroom instruction.

Question 3’s passage was by an even slimmer margin, 51.47-48.53 percent. The vote total was 6,638 to 6,259, according to the unofficial results that must be canvassed.

Jacobus said he’s excited about the future, though he cautioned that the district will continue managing its budget and looking for “efficiencies.” If the district continues to budget conservatively, it will return its reserve funds to within the school board’s policy of maintaining reserves of between 5 and 9 percent of the general fund.

District 833 School Board members earlier this year weighed multiple referendum scenarios. A district-commissioned survey in June suggested a difficult environment for schools seeking tax increases this fall. Still, they said the renewal request was essential, and they added the $375-per-pupil increase to the ballot because they said voters had been told that was planned and the funding is needed to avoid as much as $4 million in budget cuts over the next two years. They also decided to seek technology money after a previous capital levy ended last year.

School Board Chairman Katy McElwee-Stevens lost her own re-election bid but was relieved in the referendum outcome. McElwee-Stevens said she believed voters would renew the expiring levy and wasn’t sure about Question 2’s chances. She doubted Question 3 would pass.

But they all did, she said, adding that voters must have come to understand the district’s message.

“They saw merit in what we were asking for. By the time it came down to voting, I think people finally understood the state just hasn’t kept up and we’re just trying to … set it all right again,” she said of the district’s budget.

The public survey came out before the district got out and talked about what would be on the ballot and why it was requesting more levy revenue, Jacobus said. He also noted that school districts around the state were successful in their levy and bond measures.

Jacobus speculated that districts’ message about the difficulty of funding schools “has really sunk in” and people are seeing that there is accuracy in schools’ position.

“Certainly I wasn’t believing this (would be) a landslide … because it’s tough when you’re asking for the community to think about adjusting their taxes,” he said, adding that the services and programs District 833 offers students have helped with the district’s reputation.

This fall the district embarked on a multi-week informational campaign, meeting with small and large voter groups, posting referendum information online and using recorded phone messages to remind voters of the election.

Even with the referendum’s passage, Jacobus said the district will continue looking for “efficiencies” in the budget. He also He thanked the community for supporting the district.

“We really feel lucky to serve them and to serve their kids,” he said.