Although further discussion remains, the Philomath School Board during its January meeting directed Superintendent of Schools Susan Halliday to plan on putting a local option operating levy renewal vote on the November general election ballot.
The local option operating levy approved in 2018 expires June 30, 2023.
The message from the most recent renewal remains intact — the school district needs those extra dollars to maintain staffing levels and program offerings so it isn’t forced into making cuts.
“It has given us some things for our students that we wouldn’t otherwise have,” Halliday said while recommending to the board that the district ask voters for a renewal. “I believe if we don’t get that resource — especially in light of our declining enrollment — we could see some programmatic and/or staff cuts that might have to be a part of not renewing that levy.”
School Board Chair Rick Wells agreed, saying, “To keep the district afloat, you almost have to have it right now — without making cuts.”
During the 2018 levy renewal campaign, there was no visible opposition. A political action committee was organized to help with the effort — an option that could remain for the future vote.
By the time it expires, the current levy will have raised $3.5 million with payout amounts incrementally increasing annually from $650,000 in 2018-19 up to $735,000 in 2022-23. The board appeared to be leaning toward asking for the same amount with the latest renewal. However, community input on the amount to request would be considered.
As Halliday pointed out to the board, “It would be beneficial whatever we decide to have the opportunity for the community, including our Budget Committee, to provide input on the priorities and the amount.”
The original levy vote in 2013 passed by a 53-47 margin and the renewal in 2018 was favored by a 71-29 margin.
In a presentation to the board, Halliday listed three options for getting the local option levy renewal on the ballot — May primary election, August special election or the November general election.
The board did not consider putting the renewal on this spring’s ballot with the ballot title deadline on Feb. 25 and the measure language filing deadline on March 17 — a very tight window that would make it difficult to get much feedback from the community.
An August special election also wasn’t really considered. Special elections often only have one item on the ballot and voter turnout is typically very low. May 2023 would be a possibility before the current levy expires but a major conflict with Benton County would occur.
Benton County’s criminal justice improvement bond is slated to appear on the May 2023 ballot, Halliday said. That project includes a new jail, courthouse, mental health crisis center and emergency operations center as well as expanded rehabilitation programs.
“Benton County has already reached out to me to be able to say that we do not want to be in conflict,” Halliday said. “They were going to go out earlier and moved it to May 2023 … a piece of their hesitancy is they don’t want to compete but they also want to give appropriate consideration for the Benton County bond.”
If the county criminal justice improvement bond and the Philomath local option levy renewal were on the same ballot, voters may decide to only “respond to the one that’s local and more known to me and special to my heart,” Halliday said, illustrating the county’s concerns.
“If we wait and compete with Benton County in 2023, that’s our one opportunity for the levy to pass before it expires,” Halliday added. “If we look at November 2022, possibly it would give us ample time for community input. The voter turnout because of the candidacy decisions might be better, we’re not in competition with Benton County.”
However, if the renewal doesn’t pass in November, the district could opt to bring it back to voters in May 2023.
Board member Joe Dealy favored the November date “because of the chance to get the most input. I think you’re going to get the most input on a major election. I hate to see things either voted up or voted down when 25% of the voters actually vote.”
Wells said he would favor the renewal vote going on the May ballot but with so little time to prepare, he believes the November option makes sense.
All agreed that the issue should not go on the ballot at the same time as the county’s criminal justice improvement bond.
Wells and Halliday recalled when the school district and School Board worked hard to illustrate to voters the need for a local option levy when it first went on the ballot in 2013.
“There were a slew of people who volunteered countless hours to inform the community as to what and why on everything,” Wells said. “It was a lot of work to do that but in the long run it paid off. … If I remember right, Tom Klipfel and Jim Kildea were kind of the main driving force on the board that went and did a lot of the lead work on that.”
In 2018, Wells said a lot of work also went into the renewal discussion but recalled the process being less intense. Kildea and Shelley Niemann were the primary voices at the time.
Overall, positive support has been seen in past votes.
“I think a lot of it goes back to the groundwork that was laid when we first went after that in 2013 by really being focused on asking the community questions and making sure it was just ironclad clear,” Halliday said. “We haven’t hit the resistance. … I believe we’ve been very transparent with our funding and where things are going but we want to make sure our community understands where we are.”