The winning streak is over.
With nearly 27,000 votes cast, a solid majority of Millard Public Schools voters said “no” to the district's $140.8 million bond issue.
Millard officials conceded the election Tuesday night minutes after seeing the initial results from the district's first-ever mail-in election.
“Our community has spoken,” Superintendent Keith Lutz said. “We stated our needs, and the community did not agree with those needs. That's how the system works, and we respect the system. We'll go back to the drawing board.”
In final, unofficial returns, 57 percent voted against the Millard bond issue and 43 percent were in favor.
Elkhorn's school bond issue of $49.1 million fared far better — 60 percent were in favor.
Tuesday was the first time Millard voters rejected a school bond issue since the 1950s. Millard voters had previously passed 13 straight school bond issues, including one as recently as 2005.
Lutz would not say definitively whether the Millard district would try again soon with another bond issue. But he did say: “Our needs will not go away. They will only get greater.”
Millard's bond issue would have paid for school repairs, classroom additions and technology and security upgrades in the state's third-largest school district. It would have added about 1.5 cents to the property tax levy, $22.50 more a year on a house valued at $150,000.
The next opportunity for a bond issue is May, a regular election in which voters will go to the polls.
Lutz said it's hard to sell a bond issue that doesn't include new schools. He also said the economy was a factor in the defeat. “How big? I don't know.” Lutz said. “We put it off for two years waiting for the economy to get better.”
Since its last bond issue in 2005, the Millard district's enrollment has grown by 2,800 — half the student population of the Elkhorn district and more than the enrollment of the Gretna Public Schools, he said.
Staff cuts and a general-fund tax increase are among the options school board members will consider as they move forward.
Before the vote, district officials outlined other possible options such as increasing the use of portable classrooms and letting some security and technology needs to go unmet.
The results were “clearly disappointing,” said Dave Anderson, school board president.
“The school board has not had any discussion whatsoever as to what happens now,” he said. “We have the ability to come back out for a bond issue. We'll have to look at the prioritization of the projects. Hopefully we'll get a sense, a feel for, perhaps, items in it that helped to defeat the bond issue. There was always questions of needs and wants.”
Artificial turf fields proposed for Millard North and Millard West High Schools drew criticism as unnecessary, although district officials argued that the fields would be heavily used by marching bands and physical education classes and could host minor sports contests.
Anderson said the board understood that the economy would weigh against the bond issue. “I think it's gotten a little bit better,” he said, “but not to the level where people are as confident as you'd like everyone to be.” Anderson said, however, that the actual proposed tax increase for homeowners “really was not a big number.”
Paul Meyer, a Millard area resident and a member of Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, led the loosely organized opposition. “The two biggest factors were the economy and the size of the bond, and quite frankly all the wants that were in there that people could not afford,” he said. “People were not going to sacrifice their needs for the school district's wants.”
Meyer said his contention that the board was overspending found traction not only with retirees but with young families concerned about a tax increase.
He said the bond issue's security upgrades — proposed in the wake of the January fatal shooting at Millard South High School — would not substantially increase student safety.
Meyer said the margin of defeat probably would have been greater if not for some residents wanting to improve security after last January's fatal shooting at Millard South High School.
The bond issue would have paid for electronic door locks, buzzers and video cameras for all schools. The plan called for locking the doors after students' arrival and buzzing in visitors.
Meyer said that if the school board puts a bond issue before voters again, he could support a scaled-down version. “Twenty to 40 million would be acceptable.”
Doug Ewald, chairman of the pro-bond Citizens for Millard Public Schools, said he was surprised by the defeat because a district phone survey of residents last spring showed heavy support for a bond issue.Ewald said it's hard to point to a particular factor that tipped voters against it. It could be reflective of the budget battles in Washington, D.C., he said.
He said, however, that the economy is much better in Nebraska than other places.
“I wish we could close our ears to what's going on on either coast, nationally, from that perspective, and focus on what's going on here in Nebraska, because there's a lot of good stuff going on here,” he said.
In Elkhorn, most of the new school bonds will pay for two new elementary schools and a new middle school.
The rest will provide security upgrades at all but the district's three newest schools and for various projects at older buildings, including parking lots, roof repairs and technology upgrades.
World-Herald staff writer Jonathon Braden contributed to this report.
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