Though voters turned down two funding measures for the Douglas County School District in November, it seems likely the district will return to the ballot in 2023 in an effort to increase staff …
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Though voters turned down two funding measures for the Douglas County School District in November, it seems likely the district will return to the ballot in 2023 in an effort to increase staff compensation and build three new elementary schools.
During the Nov. 30 school board retreat, board members and Superintendent Erin Kane evaluated the results of the failed election with a focus on lessons learned, as well as discussed whether to ask for a bond and mill levy override next year.
All of the board members and Kane voiced support for putting a mill levy override and bond on the 2023 ballot.
“Personally, I would love for us to have (the bond and mill levy override) on the ballot in 2023 pretty much exactly as they were, asking for the same things because we didn’t magically find a different way to do it,” Kane said.
Board members were more optimistic about the chances for passing a mill levy override in 2023 because it only failed by around 3,000 votes compared to the bond, which lost by more than 15,000 votes.
Board member Christy Williams said she felt the bond would have gained more traction with voters if there had been more focus on the fact that the bond would not have raised taxes if it was passed. Since the bond failed, Douglas County taxpayers will see a small decrease in property taxes.
“It was really discouraging to see the distance there, especially with a net-zero (tax impact),” Williams said.
Other members, including Kaylee Winegar and Susan Meek, agreed that the district needed to do better about communicating the actual cost of the bond to taxpayers.
Kane said she pushed for the ballot language for the bond to include the terminology “without raising taxes,” but was told by district lawyers that they couldn’t use the phrase.
She added that the bond still saw an increase in the number of voters who supported it compared to district polling done in May 2022, which showed only 36% of voters would approve a bond. The final vote count from Nov. 8 shows 46% support for the bond.
Ultimately, Kane said the district’s financial position will not be much different next year and putting off asking for a bond would probably increase the cost for building and maintaining schools.
“I would be concerned if the board did decide to ask for just (the mill levy override) and not (the bond) because I feel like the path to some of those new schools would be insurmountable,” she said.
Another message board members hope to focus on ahead of the 2023 election is how financially responsible the district already is with taxpayer money.
Board member Becky Myers said more promotion of the cost-cutting measures the district is currently taking, such as its low administrative costs, could help show voters the district is a good steward of its finances.
When it comes time for budgeting, board member David Ray said he would like to see a model budget that includes a $60 million compensation increase for staff in an effort to show what cuts would have to be made in order to give the raise.
“If our goal is to reasonably pay all of our employees, we ought to build a budget accordingly,” Ray said. “What would that look like and what would we have to sacrifice?”
Some board members shared concerns that Ray’s plan could backfire and have voters argue that the district didn’t need the mill levy override to raise pay in the first place, but they did agree that the district could do better to communicate what is lost when funding isn’t passed.
“I agree that the part that was missing for the larger community is what’s the offset,” board member Mike Peterson said. “We’d be changing the value proposition of the (mill levy override) from ‘give us this money and we can be more competitive to retain and attract and reward staff,’... because we’ll do that internally and now we’re asking ‘if you want your programs back, give us the (mill levy override).’”
Beyond observations, the board also asked Kane to look into data comparing the 2018 and 2022 elections, the precinct-level breakdown for the 2022 election and potentially surveying voters about why they didn’t support the bond and/or mill levy override.
Other ideas for messaging included having students and teachers share school specific needs the money could be used for and a suggestion from Meek that the district should say its aiming for “reasonable pay” for staff instead of “competitve pay.”
Meek added that she would support the district hiring a consulting firm to assist with the 2023 campaign.
The board wrapped up the conversation with a plan to return to the topic at a January meeting and direct staff to begin evaluating the need for a bond and mill levy override.
On top of the potential funding questions, the school board has three seats, currently represented by Meek, Ray and board member Elizabeth Hanson, up for election. Ray is term-limited and Meek and Hanson have not commented about seeking reelection.
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