Front lawns in Millard’s Stony Brook subdivision are crawling with supernatural sights this time of year.
A ghostly pirate ship. Dancing spirits.
The strangest sight of all may be in Paul Meyer’s yard.
Meyer, the outspoken tax watchdog whose criticism helped sink the 2011 $140 million bond issue in the Millard Public Schools, has a yard sign backing the school board’s tax levy override initiative.
The initiative would give the board a green light to raise property taxes for general operations.
“I have gone to the dark side,” Meyer said.
With the election officially kicking off this week, supporters are hoping residents will side with them and vote yes in the rare override election, a first for Millard. Of Nebraska’s 244 school districts, only the Westside district currently has an override.
Opponents, meanwhile, would rather see more belt-tightening from the school board instead of a pass to spend more.
Millard officials have pitched the 9-cent tax levy override as an essential “insurance policy” to avoiding program cuts and class-size increases brought on by what they say is sluggish growth in property values and state aid.
About 73,000 ballots went to the post office on Monday, and they could start arriving in mailboxes of registered voters today. Voters must mark their ballots, sign the envelopes and return the ballots to the election commission by Nov. 14 at 5 p.m.
If voters approve the override, the school board could, for the next five years, levy up to 9 cents per $100 of tax valuation on top of the state’s $1.05 levy limit to pay for general operations.
How Millard Public Schools' proposed levy override would affect taxes
Supporters view Meyer’s backing as a positive indicator of community support.
“A huge telltale sign,” said Dave Anderson, a Millard school board member.
However, Anderson, who voted with the unanimous board to hold the override election, said there’s always the chance that a silent majority concerned about rising taxes and school spending could defeat it.
Westside’s experience provides some lessons for Millard — the district’s voters have approved five consecutive overrides.
However, the circumstances that gave rise to the first Westside override differ from Millard’s situation.
Westside’s first override attempt, in 1998, was one of a flurry of attempts by Nebraska districts after lawmakers imposed the levy limitation on Nebraska districts for the first time.
Ken Bird, who was Westside superintendent at the time, said district officials knew right away that the limit could lead to “draconian” cuts.
Their levy already exceeded the limit, which at the time was $1.10 per $100 of valuation.
“I remember having lists of, if we don’t pass this, elementary counseling is gone, elementary foreign language is gone, technology is gone,” Bird said. “It was real cuts.”
There was no active opposition group, but there was a strong anti-tax sentiment in the community. Although supporters felt confident, the vote turned out close.
It took a couple of days to confirm a victory, but then district officials had to fend off a legal challenge, which ultimately went their way. An override try in the Ralston Public Schools failed in the same election.
The Westside override, initially allowing up to $1.32 per $100, became over time a “vital” part of Westside’s budget, he said.
Westside hasn’t always used the full authority of its overrides. But prior to a September vote, Westside this year was levying the full 10 cents authorized by voters in 2012. That override was set to expire at the end of the 2017-18 school year.
Bird said Millard’s override vote is likely to be “a long-term decision” as well, barring some extraordinary changes in the state aid formula or dramatic growth in valuations.
Anderson and board member Mike Pate both said they hope the override, if approved, would not be needed beyond the five-year term.
“We hope it’s not the new normal,” Pate said.
But that depends on valuations and state aid, he said.
The latest Westside vote was close, with 51.3 percent in favor. It wasn’t the closest vote Westside has seen, but close enough to get Millard supporters’ attention.
Anderson said the vote in Westside may reflect a sour mood among taxpayers. But, he said, Westside voters were asked not just to maintain an existing levy override but to increase it from 10 cents to 15 cents.
Millard officials have said they probably won’t use the full authority next year.
They may even get by without dipping into it, if valuations or state aid increase, according to Superintendent Jim Sutfin.
While no organized opposition has emerged in Millard, there are opponents.
John Toney, 72, a retired food scientist who lives in Millard’s Harvey Oaks subdivision, said he opposes the override. He’s simply tired of taxes going up.
“I would love to see this district be put to the challenge of being more fiscally responsible, to really learn to live within their means and to do the job that they’ve been called to do, but with fewer dollars,” he said. “And I believe that they can do that, but they’ve got to be put to the challenge.”
If the override fails, Toney said, the district can still have good schools. The result won’t be catastrophic, he said.
Supporters are well-funded and organized. Pro-override forces held a rally on Thursday that drew about 250 supporters. They passed out yard signs and signed up volunteers to serve as ballot collectors outside schools.
As of Thursday, the group, Millard Citizens for Continued Excellence, reported receiving donations totaling $85,160. It received $79,500 from the Millard Public Schools Foundation, $1,500 from the Millard Education Association and $1,500 from the Nebraska State Education Association, according to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission.
On a recent morning at the Hy-Vee cafe near Millard South High School, Martin Schipporeit and friends were enjoying coffee and talk.
None among the seven men at the table opposed the override.
“You’re dealing with our future,” Schipporeit said. “If you don’t educate these kids ... the whole country’s going to go to hell.”
Dick Lewis, a former assistant superintendent for business in the Millard Public Schools, is a regular with the group.
Lewis, who retired in 1994, said Millard’s low per-pupil spending means it can’t cut any deeper.
“If Millard Public Schools does not vote in favor of this, it’s going to become a second-class school system,” he said.
District officials point to their third-lowest per-pupil spending in the state as evidence that they’re running efficiently. They’ve made budget cuts since 2010, including eliminating the culinary arts career academy and the middle school alternative program, and cutting 53 teaching and administrative positions, 14 custodial and maintenance positions, and three nursing positions. The personnel cuts were achieved by attrition.
Meyer, who turned his notoriety from the bond fight into a successful run for school board, said his four years on the board gave him new appreciation for the district’s financial situation.
“I do want the standards to stay up,” said Meyer, who declined to run for re-election last year. “I can see that programs are being cut, teachers positions being cut.”
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