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Voters give White River schools levy the nod
By Brenda Sexton
The small group anxiously gathered at the White River School District administration building election night, staring at a computer screen.
“We kept hitting the refresh button every few minutes to see the numbers come up,” said Carolyn Norris, Citizens for White River Schools committee leader.
By Thursday morning, the numbers from White River's April 25 maintenance and operation levy ballot proposition were a resounding 65 percent “yes.”
“We're just so excited,” Norris said. “We are quite relieved, to say the least.”
White River voters slammed the same levy on the February ballot with 52 percent approval (60 percent is needed to pass). The April issue was the final chance this year for the district to pass the four-year levy that makes up approximately 18 percent of its annual budget.
Tax payers approved a series of four one-year levies that would collect $7 million the first year and gradually grow to $8.2 million in the final year, 2010. The rate was expected to remain the same, $3.49 per $1,000 assessed valuation or become smaller as more people moved into the area to share the tax burden and home values increased.
“We felt fairly confident after the first one because historically they've always passed,” Norris said. “It's been so long since one hadn't passed.”
Norris said the committee couldn't pinpoint why the February measure failed, but took a more active strategy to reach voters this time around. The district also took a $6.9 million bond off the ballot that would have refurbished its stadium and brought additional technology to classrooms.
Norris said taking the bond off helped a bit.
“People thought you had to vote yes for both or no for both,” she said.
She also said many voters thought the M and O levy was a new tax. The M and O levy replaces the current levy that expires soon.
“We really emphasized it was not a new tax,” Norris said. “We found people didn't want to pay a new tax.
“We also sent out more information. We didn't want to give them an opportunity to say they hadn't heard about it.”
The committee handed out more literature, made itself visible in neighborhoods and on highways and on the telephone.
“We weren't even asking them to vote yes, just please vote,” Norris said. “People are used to the national level where they feel one vote doesn't make a difference, but in something like this it does.”
This time, White River and most of the surrounding districts, used a mail-only voting procedure. Norris said that helped too because school M and O levies are typically not a “glamorous” issue that pulls voters to the polls. In February, of White River's approximately 4,117 voters, about 300 voted at the polls.
As of Thursday, 4,536 Buckley-area voters had mailed in ballots for a almost a 42 percent turnout.
“Our numbers keep climbing,” School Board President Susan McGuire said. “Holy moley, to get that many people to vote is an amazing thing. To have 65 percent of the people support us is a good feeling. We can't do the job they want us to do without their support.”
“We're so grateful,” Superintendent Tom Lockyer said.
Although district officials never discussed it officially, Lockyer said there were a number of items that could have ended up on the chopping block like junior varsity sports, transportation and teaching positions that will now get to stay.
“We're glad that we don't have to go there,” Lockyer said. “But there were some behind-closed-doors hot and heavy discussions going on. Obviously the what-ifs were being discussed.”
Lockyer said with staff contracts and the preliminary 2006-07 budget looming in the near weeks, district leaders had to look at what the budget would look like without $7 million a year. He said the group was eyeing 15 to 20 percent decrease in all areas.
“We had to face the reality,” Lockyer said. “We had to go down that road. We were looking at a broad brush approach in all areas.
On the district Web site, Lockyer said the district was blessed by the community support.
“The 65 percent voter approval was one of the highest margins of victory in recent elections and shows the level of support and confidence this community has in its schools and district,” Lockyer wrote. “A special thank you to those community members and parents who worked collaboratively with the district to get the word out and communicate the importance of the levy to learning.”
Brenda Sexton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.