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Our Opinion: Looking beyond the defeat of school issues

The postmortem has begun for the two public school issues defeated in Tuesday’s election.

Jefferson City School District voters rejected: by a 67.5 percent margin, a $79 million bond issue to build a new public high school and new elementary school; and, by a 64.3 percent margin, a levy increase for operations and other initiatives.

District patrons — both supporters and opponents of the issues — now are busy interpreting the message sent by voters.

Here are some observations:

• The school issues — which together would have raised the property tax levy by 55 cents — were the fourth local tax-hike proposal to suffer defeat since February 2012. Jefferson City sales tax increases for economic development, Transformation, and the fire department were rejected last year. Also rejected was a ballot issue for improvements to the public library.

District patrons were being both realistic and prophetic when they told campaigners they simply couldn’t afford any more.

• The campaign strategy — which on Sunday we called “disappointing” — also proved misguided. Campaign organizers counted on rallying supporters amid a low voter turnout. Tuesday’s turnout was double their expectations.

In addition to miscalculating, we fault the campaign for failing to engage community discussion and respond to opponents’ concerns. We encourage organizers of future campaigns to learn from Tuesday’s vote.

• The defeat does not necessarily signal a mandate for two high schools. We understand that a group of opponents galvanized under the two-schools banner. But that position also may have served as convenient cover to reject a plan under the guise of favoring a better one.

These observations indicate voters are weary of tax hike proposals.

To succeed, future campaign must adopt a number of strategies and execute them well.

First, ballot issues must be based on demonstrated need. They also must be affordable and as singularly focused as possible.

In addition, campaigns must — and should — engage the community and inform voters, including opponents, why the proposals deserve passage.

The defeat of the school proposals was instructive, but it hasn’t solved an ongoing concern for public education.

Tuesday’s result will not be a loss if it sparks a comprehensive, honest dialogue on whether the status quo is acceptable or a new approach is needed.

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