The Millard school district’s tax levy override passed by a wide margin Tuesday.
Sixty-three percent of voters favored the override, and 37 percent voted against it.
Superintendent Jim Sutfin summed up the night with one word: “relief.”
During the campaign, he had said that if voters didn’t approve the extra authority, budget cuts were likely and would have been deep.
“I’m grateful. Humbled. I’m overwhelmed with the support,” he said.
Turnout for the mail-in election was nearly 43 percent, with 31,084 ballots cast, according to the unofficial count.
Millard school board member Linda Poole called the result “a strong vote of confidence.” She said residents sent the message that they like the education their children are receiving and the opportunities students have.
“Nothing has made me more proud in my 21 years of service on the Millard board than getting these results,” she said.
With the override approved, the Millard school board can, 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. District officials have said they’re unlikely to use the full 9 cents next year.
If Millard tapped 3 cents, the school taxes on a $150,000 house would increase by $45 a year. At 6 cents, the increase would be $90 and at 9 cents, $135.
Sutfin has said he anticipates the district budget going up 3 percent next year. How much of the levy authority will be needed will depend on what happens with property values and on the next legislative session, he said.
Board President Mike Kennedy characterized the vote as a landslide.
“I think people understood the message that we’re the third-lowest spender in the state, kids are getting a quality education, and they want to make sure we keep that quality education in place,” he said.
But Kennedy acknowledged that around a third of residents voted against the override. He said the board has to be aware that residents have their own financial struggles.
Sutfin and the board members emphasized that they intend to be fiscally conservative with the extra authority.
Of Nebraska’s 244 school districts, only the Westside district currently has an override.
Westside voters first approved one in 1998. The latest Westside override vote, on Sept. 12, raised the override to 15 cents. The vote was close, with 51.3 percent in favor.
When the override idea was first proposed, Sutfin had described it as the most important question the school board had ever taken to the community.
Without it, he had said, the school board would have had to cut into academic programs that make Millard a standout district.
Supporters were well-funded and organized, mounting a ballot collection effort that positioned volunteer collectors outside schools.
Stacy Jolley, co-chair of the pro-override committee, said that about a thousand volunteers had been working “literally around the clock” since the campaign kicked off in October.
“People don’t give of themselves in that way, and to that degree, unless they’re passionate,” she said.
Selling a levy override was different from a bond issue, where residents can see a more tangible outcome from their vote.
In this case, it was about preserving the education the district delivers, she said.
“It’s not a shiny new building,” she said. “It’s not some remodel or capital improvement. So it really relies more on people’s faith and belief in the district.”
There was no organized opposition to the ballot question, and the usual tax watchdog groups never weighed in. However, the critics who did emerge said the district should be more fiscally responsible and live within the current levy limit.
District officials had tied the district’s financial troubles to a lack of valuation increases and to state aid cuts.
In pitching the override, district officials pointed to their third-lowest per-pupil spending in the state as evidence that they’re already running efficiently. They also noted that the school board 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.
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