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School board must consider when, how to return to voters

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By Greg Romberg

It’s been an interesting few years as it relates to general consensus about when to put school mill levy overrides and bond issues on ballots. Historically, lower voter turnout benefited these questions because teachers and parents were the more motivated voters. When those motivated supporters made up the largest possible percentage of the vote, the measures stood the best chances of winning.

But in both 2005 and 2006 the conventional wisdom was turned on its head as tax initiatives did well with high voter turnout. Post-election analysis suggested that voters in their 20s and 30s, regardless of political affiliation and whether they had kids or not, were voting for government investments in things they believed deficient. The two things they seemed most willing to support were education and transportation.

When the Jefferson County Board of Education analyzed upcoming needs, recent voting patterns and the enthusiasm being generated by young voters who appeared energized to vote for the first time this year, it looked like asking voters to approve more resources in 2008 would be a good strategic decision. However, the failure of both the mill levy increase and continuation of current expenditures for construction projects has proponents questioning whether this year was the correct timing and what to do next.

The two biggest problems the measures faced were voter fatigue caused by the longest state issue ballot in the country with 14 initiatives and referenda (not counting four measures that were withdrawn, but still showed up on printed ballots) and a rapidly declining economy. Despite the fact that there was no formal, organized opposition to the measures, both were defeated. All tax-related issues on the statewide ballot failed, as did most school measures across the state. School mill levy overrides and bonds passed in the Denver, Cherry Creek, Aurora and St. Vrain school districts, which are very different communities with different resources and different needs.

The school district began looking at budget alternatives should the tax increase fail before the election. Decisions for next year are relatively manageable but are projected to get much more difficult in following years. It will be more difficult to get additional state resources while state revenues are down, but recessionary trends could save money on some products the district buys.

The school board and increase supporters now face the difficult task of analyzing if and when to go back to voters. The questions they must consider are how long will the recession last, whether a lower voter turnout election in 2009 or higher turnout election in 2010 helps or hurts chances of passage, when supporters can be mobilized again to both finance and volunteer for a campaign and what needs to be done to assuage voter questions about whether the additional funds are really needed. It probably also makes sense to analyze both what was requested and how the campaigns were run in the districts that were successful.

Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm.