AP NEWS

Turnout soars in Santa Fe schools vote

March 3, 2019

Following voters’ defeat last month of Albuquerque Public Schools’ three tax measures to raise revenue for construction projects, school officials in Santa Fe doubled their marketing efforts for a similar election here — a vote conducted solely through mail-in ballots.

The election is the district’s first by mail — a voting system that already has drastically increased turnout. By late last week, 27,000 people, more than 30 percent of registered voters in the district, had cast a ballot.

In comparison, school-related elections in Santa Fe over the past decade have never drawn more than 10 percent of eligible voters — largely parents, teachers and other public school advocates who have overwhelmingly favored tax levies and bonds.

For Santa Fe Public Schools, the increase in voter turnout has heightened the importance of spreading its message about the Education Technology Note, which would draw $11 million a year in property taxes over five years to pay for classroom technology and take-home computers, digital learning coaches, network and wireless systems, and technical support.

The goal, said school board members and Superintendent Veronica García, was to ensure voters that, unlike the Albuquerque election measures that would have increased property taxes, the question on Santa Fe ballots would only continue collection of an existing tax.

The school district, which already had sent flyers to every voter, sent another targeted mailer after the Albuquerque results were publicized. And García made another round of television and radio appearances.

The district also put banners on campuses and buses, spread its message through social media, and set up a voter hotline for people with questions about the election.

The monthlong campaign by Santa Fe Public Schools to raise awareness of the election — asking voters to renew a five-year Education Technology Note — is nearing an end. While it’s too late for most voters to drop their ballots in the mailbox, they have until 7 p.m. Tuesday to hand-deliver ballots to the Santa Fe County Clerk’s Office.

The election has cost the district about $180,000 so far, García said, just to the get ballots out. But the costs will rise, she added, because the district will have to pay for poll workers to count ballots and will have to cover postage for ballots returned by mail.

She expects the costs of voter education materials and other marketing efforts to reach another $180,000. That compares with about $50,000 spent on voter education campaigns in past elections.

“To try to reach 87,000 people is a huge push for the type of team we have,” García said, “especially when there are no analytics from past elections to look at who your typical voter is.”

She noted two messages she hoped to communicate to voters: “The first is that it’s not a new tax,” García said. “If there is a way to have clearer language to explain that, we need to explore how to do that.

“Second is that this technology we’re investing in is not a luxury,” she said. “A Chromebook computer is the equivalent of a textbook for today’s students.”

Though the tax renewal won’t increase property taxes, homeowners would see a decrease in their tax bills if the measure fails. For a home valued at about $300,000 the drop would be about $150 per year.

Under a new state law that requires most local elections to be held in November in odd-numbered years, several school districts across the state held their first special elections by mail in early February, asking voters to approve property tax measures. In Albuquerque and a handful of other communities — such as Bloomfield, Bernalillo, Cloudcroft and Questa — voters said no.

The results raised concerns among officials in Santa Fe and other districts still waiting for votes to be tallied.

Albuquerque Public Schools had proposed two mill levy questions and a bond issue to potentially raise $900 million over six years, mostly for construction. Two of the measures together would have raised property taxes by 4.7 percent. About 28.7 percent of eligible voters cast mail-in ballots in Albuquerque and rejected all three tax measures by at least 58 percent.

“The turnout was about what we expected. I think voters generally want to support public schools, but you have to be cautious around a tax increase,” Albuquerque Public Schools Chief Operations Officer Scott Elder said.

“In all honesty, because it was the first time we’d done a mail-in ballot, we didn’t have any precedent to fall back on,” he said. “We sort of stuck to what we knew ahead of the vote.”

Results of Santa Fe Public Schools’ Education Technology Note election are expected around 9 p.m. Tuesday, when the district will be wrapping up a board meeting.

García was feeling hopeful about the election last week.

“I’m feeling cautiously optimistic that voters of Santa Fe believe in our work and believe in our kids and want us to have the 21st-century skills that are required today,” she said.