On Tuesday, the Cedar Rapids school district’s bid to raise local taxes to pay for building maintenance took it on the chin.
Districtwide, the measure seeking to double the district’s current 67-cent Physical Plant and Equipment Levy, or PPEL, fell 2,263 votes to 1,673, or 57.5 percent to 42.5 percent. It failed in all but one of five voting sites, winning only by six votes at Washington High School. That’s a blowout. Turnout was very low, as usual, averaging just over 4 percent per voting site, according to unofficial results from the Linn County auditor’s office.
At the polling place inside the district’s new Educational Leadership and Support Center, voters rejected it 499-384.
Honestly, I cannot say for certain whether that 169,000-square-foot, $44.5 million administrative headquarters, opened just last year, bathed in the natural light of its enormous windows, had any direct effect on voters being asked to pony up more bucks to fix other school facilities plagued with nagging issues for years. What I do know is that almost every time the levy came up in recent weeks, in emails, calls and conversations, the so-called “Taj Mahal” also came up. And not in a positive, or natural, light. Draw your own conclusions.
In reality, more than one sword slew the levy. Some voters, perhaps many who turned out, simply didn’t want to pay higher taxes. It’s possible the Polk closure saga dented public trust in the school board and administration, although incumbent Keith Westercamp easily brushed away a lone challenger. Maybe people voted no because I suggested they should vote yes. That pattern has emerged in recent years.
But I think the district asked for too much and didn’t ask loudly enough.
The state allows districts to levy $1.34 per $1,000 in taxable valuation through property taxes, possibly in combination with an income surtax. But I think in a community like this one, where tax measures routinely go to die, that a smaller boost might have gone over better. Doubling the levy was a big pill to swallow.
And although lots of voters see that pricey headquarters on Edgewood, most didn’t see or hear a big sales pitch from supporters on why this increase was needed and how it would be used to benefit kids. Granted, school elections are low-key affairs, but the push for passage was remarkably weak.
The district will have to re-evaluate its approach before it asks again for a levy renewal, perhaps as early as February. This may also be a warning for Cedar Rapids’ backers of a local-option sales tax extension. Make your case strong or take it on the chin.