Survey: Low voter turnout behind failed levy

Back in May, school leaders anticipated an easy win in a two-part levy referendum aimed at increasing technology funding, and upgrading facilities and security measures in the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan Area School District. That didn’t happen.

The purpose of the first vote was to renew and increase the school district’s designated technology tax levy to $1.7 million annually for 10 years, as the current $490,000 annual levy is set to expire in 2014. The other was to establish an $11.2 million building bond for an early-learning center and security upgrades.

The technology levy failed in the special election, where only 47 percent of voters were in favor of it. Fifty-three percent of voters rejected it.The building bond was squelched, too, as only 46 percent of voters said “yes” and 54 percent “no.”

Residents were polled before and after the referendum, and both surveys showed about 66 percent of eligible voters favored last spring’s referendum. Yet the measure failed, thereby forcing District 197 to significantly reshape its budgets heading into the school year.

Peter Leatherman of the Morris Leatherman Company conducted surveys both before and after the vote.

“Surveys are not predictors for a few months out,” Leatherman told the District 197 School Board.  “A lot of things can change in the atmosphere between the time the survey is taken and also by the events that are going on in the district.”

In the surveys taken prior to the vote, 33 percent of respondents indicated they planned to vote, but ultimately that number did not materialize.

“In the aftermath of our loss in May, there was some discussion about the survey being ‘wrong.’ My comment to that was: this is a ground game,” District 197 board chair Mark Spurr said.

“The folks who mobilized, very effectively, against the referendum had a better ground game. If we’re to succeed, we need a good ground game.”

On the day of the levy vote, there was only a 13 percent turnout, which Leatherman believes was one of the lowest turnouts for a special election in the metro area. Similarly, only 20 percent of parents voted, which was also notably low.

In the post-vote survey, several people who didn’t vote gave a number of reasons why, including: “too busy,” “forgot” and “not interested.”

“Like an elevator, it’s not the drop of 67 floors that gets you; it’s the last 10 feet,” Leatherman said. “What that suggests is the ‘get-out-and-vote’ effort may have suffered a little bit in immobilizing people to go vote.”

Leatherman believes, and his statistics indicate, that better voter turnout would have resulted in passage of the referendum, but due to the lack of interest from the “yes” side, the more energized group won.

Because 65 percent of the residents expressed support for the proposed referendum, Leatherman said it was proof that exceptionally low voter turnout was the main culprit behind the failed vote.

“It’s clear you had an asymmetric, low turnout in the last referendum election,” he said. “The opposition was more mobilized; parents didn’t have good turnout, and supportive empty-nesters didn’t turn out. It pretty much doomed the referendum.”

Opponents remain skeptical

Some voters still likely don’t see the need to raise property taxes for the technology and building upgrades.

A few weeks after the failed vote, a few vocal participants spoke out at a school board meeting.

Mendota Heights resident John Fisher went as far as saying the information the district provided regarding the referendum was “little more than propaganda,” and that the superintendent offered “veiled threats of dire consequences,” in the case that the levy and bond weren’t successful.

He said the referendum didn’t fail because of low voter turnout, but because the district didn’t have the true pulse of the public. 

“You were not listening to the community,” Fisher asserted at the meeting. “(The voters) don’t like to be threatened, and the people who elected you resented it.”

You can reach Tim Faklis at 651-748-7814, at tfaklis@lillienews.com, or on Twitter @tfaklisnews.

 

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