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Local school taxes and bond issues pass with flying colors

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 8, 2010 -  If all politics is local, as Tip O'Neill famously said, then local propositions like tax hikes and bond issues are the place where the aphorism is put to its toughest test.

On Tuesday, such issues passed overwhelmingly, with not only Proposition A for mass transit winning by a big margin but school tax issues and bond proposals coming up winners as well. 

Given the tough economic times, that result may seem surprising. But you can't always draw conclusions about local balloting from the national headlines, political scientist Lana Stein says.

"You hear the anti-tax sentiment so loudly, including in Jefferson City, and in the Tea Party movement," said Stein, a professor emerita of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "Yet people will vote for taxes if it affects them directly, and the case is made well."

UMSL political scientist Terry Jones wasn't surprised at the election results because he did polling for three of the issues on local ballots -- he won't say which ones -- and had a good sense of what effect hard economic times would have.

Jones said he tested two arguments: First, this is not a good time to raise taxes because the economy is poor shape. Second, when times are tough, it is more important than ever to invest in the community.

He said he found that the first argument resonates only with people who are already disposed to vote against a tax, not with those leaning toward a tax so that they move in the opposite direction. The second argument, he said, has a slight positive impact on those already favorably disposed.

"If voters think it's a good idea to do whatever it is that is being proposed," Jones said, "they are willing to do it in good times and bad times."

While he wasn't surprised by the election returns, Jones said he was wholly expecting the results of his polling.

"I was not expecting as much of an impact as the people associated with those campaigns were afraid of, in terms of a negative effect from the economy," he said.

"But with the fact that it has almost no impact on people who are undecided or leaning in favor, while it does reinforce those against it to be even more against it, I was mildly surprised that impact was so slight."

Local school districts learned how to make the case to voters. Bond and tax proposals won in districts including Clayton, Ladue, Maplewood-Richmond Heights, Rockwood, Valley Park and Webster Groves. In some cases, voters were more receptive this time around than they were in other recent elections.

In Maplewood-Richmond Heights, for example, in April 2007 a $9 million bond issue passed but a 30.6-cent tax levy failed. This time around, the district passed both a $9 million bond issue and a 67-cent tax increase.

The difference, district spokesman Tom Wickersham said, was a concerted effort by the district to let voters know about the progress students have made in recent years. He said a telephone survey in December 2008 showed that voters would be receptive to the issues if the district could let them know why they should vote yes.

"The school district has been making steady improvement since about 2000," he said. "At that point, we became much more attuned to the needs of the community and have made significant improvements in students achievement.

"We needed to tell that story to our community. We were having this success, but we weren't sharing that information very well."

He said one part of that effort was a video report card on the district website. Another reason for the success at the polls, he said, was a pledge the schools made about the budget.

"We said you help us with this tax increase," Wickersham said, "we will continue to make cuts to our budget to become an even tighter operating machine." He said the schools will cut $480,000 over the next two years, mostly by shrinking the staff through attrition without increasing class size.

In Clayton, where a school bond issue passed a year ago by just two votes, the margins for a tax increase and bond issue were much larger this time around. Spokesman Chris Tennill said the district has not lost a bond issue in decades, and this year's proposal -- $39.4 million in bonds to build a new middle school - showed renewed confidence in the Clayton schools.

"We spent the better part of last year listening to our community and trying to build a community-driven solution to meet the needs of our middle school," Tennill said.

"To go from winning by two votes to winning with almost 63 percent, given the state of the economy and the concern about school funding, really affirms the fact that we did this the right way."

Tennill noted that while overall voter turnout in St. Louis County was 22 percent, turnout in Clayton was about 34 percent. He also said that having the Metro tax on the ballot helped as well, since MetroLink runs through Clayton.

Sarah Riss, superintendent of the Webster Groves School District, credited passage of both a bond issue and a tax increase Tuesday to support by volunteers, who worked hard to educate the community on the need for both.

"We just live in an absolutely fabulous community," she said. "They support their schools. They understand that strong schools build a strong community."

Riss also said that taxpayers in the district realize that 90 percent of the revenue to support the schools come from local property taxes, so there aren't a lot of other sources they can tap to provide students with a strong education.

"We are not a business," she said. "We weren't talking about large raises for teachers. We were really talking about the status quo. I think our community has done a good job of staying educated about where the resources come to support our school district -- the only way to increase revenue is to go back to our local taxpayers.

"That's difficult for homeowners here because we don't have a large amount of commercial property. But we try to be very good stewards with those resources, always looking for ways to save money and also attract best teachers we can."

Stein said Proposition A for Metro did better than she thought it would, and she isn't sure it would have done as well if it had been on a ballot in August or November, where there usually is more to vote on.

In this case, she said, voters who are better educated and more affluent responded to a campaign that was directed toward them, even if they don't use Metro's services.

"They can see it as a value to the region," she said, "if for nothing else than it can bring workers out to west county for fast-food restaurants, the mall and the hospitals that are located further out. It's self-interest, even if it's not direct self-interest."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.