Voters defeat both Jefferson City school issues

Members of the group opposed to the Jefferson City School District’s two ballot proposals gather Tuesday to wait for results. Both issues failed.

Members of the group opposed to the Jefferson City School District’s two ballot proposals gather Tuesday to wait for results. Both issues failed. Photo by Shaun Zimmerman.

Voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to build a new high school to replace the 1964-era building that has served the community for decades.

In the election, 67.5 percent of voters rejected the Jefferson City Board of Education’s request to issue $79 million in general obligation bonds to build the new facility and 64.3 percent voted to reject an increase in the school district’s operating levy.

Respectively, only 32.5 percent and 35.7 percent of voters favored providing more revenue to the district. But the district needed four-sevenths, or about 57 percent, of the vote to pass the bond issue and a simple majority of votes for the operating levy to be raised.

Dan Ortmeyer, the leader of the group that opposed the Board of Education’s proposal, was both stoic and gratified as the results came in Tuesday evening.

“Essentially, the school board has wasted the taxpayers’ time and money with this election,” Ortmeyer said. “We tried to tell them the people of the school district want a second school option, but that is not what the people were allowed to vote on.”

Ortmeyer said he believes now the school district should come forward with a “real world, two-school proposal.”

“If they come back with a one-school proposal, it’s not acceptable,” he said.

The Board of Education’s plan to build the new high school and request more money for operating expenses was supported by the Excellence in Education campaign, which was supported by funding from the Jefferson City business community.

Although the chances of the bond proposal’s passage were considered by many observers tenuous at best prior to the election, ultimately it may have been a miscalculation on the part of the Excellence in Education’s campaign leaders that contributed to the two failures Tuesday.

Based on numbers from previous April elections, campaign leaders had planned for about 6,000 to 7,000 voters to turn out. Instead, 12,620 patrons of the school district turned out to vote Tuesday on the new high school plan. Of that number, 4,103 favored building a new high school and 8,517 rejected the plan.

More than 25 percent of registered voters came to the polls, Cole County Clerk Marvin Register reported.

If the voter turnout had occurred as predicted, it’s possible the two ballot issues may have passed, campaign supporter Mike Backus said at the watch party, held at NH Schepper’s Distributing.

Voters in Jefferson City haven’t approved an increase in local funding for schools since 2002 — 11 years ago — when they approved an increase to improve teacher salaries. That year, about 12,000 voters cast ballots. Prior to that, the last tax increase was in 1990, when voters approved money to build the city’s two middle schools.

“We identified the supporters who believed in the proposal, and we turned them out,” Backus said. “But we encountered a historic turnout.”

Backus said his group was “neither disappointed nor defeated” by the loss, and he said his fellow campaigners believe in the education of every child.

“I think we as a campaign understand, come tomorrow, we still have to educate kids. The need is still there. There’s a lot of research and conversation that will have to go on.”

He added: “We had a lot of good people — people with integrity and character — who put a lot of hard work into this. Whenever that happens, at the end of the day, it’s a win for the community. It would be really disappointing if there wasn’t a group that cared about kids.”

Over the course of the campaign, the Excellence in Education campaign made more than 12,000 phone calls to voters in the community. They did not conduct the kind of campaign that has become expected at election time: one that relied on plenty of advertising, direct mailers and yard signs.

Many of the people at the watch party — including incumbent school board member Doug Whitehead, said they felt, at the end of the day, it became a “pocketbook issue” for many voters.

Brenda Hatfield, one of a trio of women who led the Excellence in Education campaign, said her group discovered that people “don’t like tax increases of any sort.”

As she worked the polls Tuesday, Hatfield said a number of people told her: “You understand, I can’t afford any more.”

“Dollars are hard to come by for all of us,” Hatfield said.

But she wanted to thank the many volunteers who helped out during the campaign. And she said she would not have changed the way her group ran it.

“We talked to friends and neighbors, telling the school district’s story,” she said. “We’ve been doing presentations since 2010 until this week.”

It’s not yet clear if the Board of Education, and school administrators, will be taking another look at the possibility of a second high school.

“What happened?” Superintendent Brian Mitchell asked. “The voters in the Jefferson City School District said they are not ready to accept” the single high school plan.

The next step will be more fact-finding, he said. He noted he expected the district to conduct another patron survey.

“At this point, we’re going to spend a little time finding out as much as we can about what voters didn’t like about this plan. We’re not going to rush back and try something the same or different.”

As for the election day’s events, Register said there was a steady stream of voters all day.

“There weren’t many lines,” he said. “People would walk out to vote and then someone would walk in. For what was on the ballot, it was a nice turnout.”

Register said as with every election there were some problems, but none were very major.

Voting machines at Southridge Baptist Church and Wesley United Methodist Church had to be replaced after ballots got stuck in them, but Register said no votes were lost because ballots were put in back of machines until they could go through the replacement machines.

Accompanying photo: The opposition waits

See additional election coverage here.

Correction: The original version of the above article had the vote tallies transposed on the two issues. The error has since been corrected in the above text.

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