Something special might be in the air for the Cedar Rapids Community School District. Following voters’ rejection on Tuesday of a ballot question to double the rate of the district’s Physical Plant and Equipment Levy (PPEL), the district’s only chance to renew or increase the levy before it expires on June 30, 2015 will come in the form of a special election.
Only 42.51 percent of voters supported the measure, which needed a simple majority to pass.
“I’m certainly going to recommend we go back to the voters,” said Superintendent Dave Benson. “I will recommend the board go back at the earliest time.”
Cedar Rapids’ voter-approved PPEL rate is 67 cents per $1,000 of taxable valuation and had the measure passed, that rate would’ve risen to $1.34 per $1,000, the state-allowed maximum, for 10 years beginning July 1, 2015. The extra $3.46 million generated annually from the increase would have gone toward facilities upgrades, repairs and maintenance for district buildings and vehicles.
School board members Gary Anhalt, Keith Westercamp and Nancy Humbles, all of whom in Tuesday’s election won re-election to four-year terms, expressed disappointment about the measure’s defeat but remained quiet on whether or not they would approve going back to voters for either a smaller increase or a renewal at the current rate.
“I never commit to a vote until I have all the facts in front of me,” Westercamp said. “We need the PPEL levy … That’s the only money we really have to maintain our buildings. We have no choice. We have to maintain our buildings.”
Benson was quick to note that decision remains in the hands of the school board and he opted against speculating how the board would act. Regular school board elections are held in odd years and each year four dates are designated for special elections. Sept. 10 was the final available election date this year, so the earliest the Cedar Rapids district could go back to voters is Feb. 4, 2014.
“We’ll look at our options,” Benson said. “A tax issue is always a difficult issue, regardless of whether it’s a special election.”
Voters in Tuesday’s election cast their ballots at five district buildings or Vote Centers – the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s four high schools and the Education, Leadership and Support Center – a new practice designed to save costs, boost turnout and increase efficiency. Residents could vote at any center instead of having multiple voting locations determined by precinct, which often serve fewer people.
Tallies are unofficial until the votes are canvassed on Friday, Sept. 13, but the County Auditor Joel Miller’s summary shows that 4.7 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the Cedar Rapids district’s election. That’s far fewer than the 10 percent for which Deputy Commissioner of Elections Tim Box had hoped and down 0.6 percent from the district’s most recent election in 2011, when nine candidates vied for four seats, but still higher than totals from the district’s 2007, 2008 and 2009 elections. Only one of Tuesday’s three school board races was contested.
Still Box was positive about the outcome of the new system.
“Our initial analysis with the turnout and the precinct officials is that it was successful. We will offer (the vote centers) to the school districts again,” he said. “We were hoping for more. We had high hopes for the vote centers being convenient but we didn’t lose ground, so that’s good news.”
Another predicted advantage of using Vote Centers over the previous system is only having to staff five buildings.
“(That’s) roughly $10,000 worth of labor costs we do not have to incur,” Box said.
The final cost of Tuesday’s contests are not yet available, but the school district’s bill for the 2011 school board election $22,409. The total election’s price tag will be divided between Kirkwood Community College and the 11 area school districts who also had races on Tuesday’s ballot.
If the Cedar Rapids school board does decided to host a special election, the district would be solely responsible for the cost, which would be paid out of the district’s general fund. Should the district opt to once again use the Vote Centers, Box said the cost of a special election would be comparable to that of the regular election only Kirkwood would not pick up half as it will for Tuesday’s contests because the community college also participated.
The district has until Dec. 20 to file a resolution with the county auditor for a Feb. 4 special election. There’s no immediate aftermath for district operations and maintenance projects as a result of Tuesday’s failure, but Superintendent Benson said it will be a different story if the public does not renew the levy before it expires.
“It would mean no funding stream for the maintenance and operation of our current assets,” he said.