Thursday, May 08, 2008

Why did it fail?

So why did the Billings School District 2 mill levy fail? A few possibilities, all of them unsullied by any actual evidence:

1. People are really scared of the economy. They're afraid to spend anything.

2. People fail to see a connection between the money they vote for schools and what actually happens in schools. Ever since the teachers' strike, I think there has been a uneasy sense that everything we vote for goes to pay raises and none of it to kids. People do want to support schools, but they don't want to be played for suckers.

3. Bad PR campaign. We at The Outpost never heard a word from the pro-levy forces. I have a natural inclination to exaggerate the Outpost's influence, but it still always strikes me as a pretty good bellwether for the competence of a PR campaign. Yes, we're small and don't have a lot of resources to devote to school coverage, but our readers also are disproportionately more literate, more involved and more likely to vote than the average citizen. We also draw more readers every week than, for example, ever go to a Billings Outlaws football game. Would school supporters have passed up an opportunity to make a pitch to a full house at MetraPark? Then why overlook a larger audience that is even more likely to be listening?

4. All-day kindergarten. That's not my argument, but Montana Headlines makes a good case for it.

5. Mail-in ballots. Have I mentioned that I hate them? I also predict that if their use becomes permanent and widespread, then mill levies will continue to have a hard time passing. Live elections force people to take a bit of notice of the world around them and pay attention to what is really going on. When you go to vote, you are functioning as a part of a community, and you are more aware of your role in the community.

As Americans become increasingly cocooned, they find it harder to look past their own noses. The only thing they know for sure about a mill levy is that it will cost them money, so they vote it down. Fewer people may vote in live elections, but those who do vote tend to be people who really care and want to make a difference. Those are the opinions that ought to matter most.

UPDATE: The Montana Headlines post linked above also makes useful points about the nature of school mill levies in Montana. It does seem to me a preposterous way to do business. As a voter, I don't really want to make decisions about how much money is needed to carry on everyday operations at the schools. I just want to be able to fire the people who do make those decisions.

The prevalence of absentee balloting and mail-in ballots, plus the growing tendency of having voters cast ballots directly on fairly routine legislative and policy matters, seems to lead toward the worst of all worlds: Voting keeps getting easier while the decisions keep getting harder. Less accountability, more responsibility: That's an odd formula for good government.


Montana Headlines said...

All of the factors you note probably played a role.

Full day kindergarten was an indirect problem, but a problem nonetheless -- probably for enough voters to have made the difference in this very close election.

It has nothing to do with the merits of full-day vs. half-day kindergarten, and everything to do with starting taking on a new obligation (one that ate up much of what was raised when we voted in the last mill levy) when the district couldn't meet its old obligations.

The supporters of this levy knew better than to make a big campaign out of this -- I believe that it actually would have hurt the cause, and so did they. The decision not to promote it the way they did the last one was intentional.

Had they aggressively promoted it, there would have been lots of questions about how the last money was spent, and about what happened to all of that big money that the governor tells us was poured into education in the last legislative sessions.

It would have been clear that a huge percentage of both the money from the last levy and that state money went into startup costs for new programs.

As a commenter on MH pointed out, it is hard to say both things -- we have the money to start a new program and we don't have enough money to run the schools as they are.

The fundamental problem is economic anxiety, primarily driven by energy costs that are hurting all of us. But had the governor and the legislature not shoved full day kindergarten down our throats and just given that money to districts to spend as they chose, I suspect that districts across the state would have been in a better position to make the case to voters for mill levy increases.

I may be wrong, but that's how I see it.

Dave Rye said...

"Those are the opinions that ought to matter most." Some opinions are more valid than others? What are you, David, some kind of elitist?

That's okay. I guess I am, too.

I once at a public forum opposed a bunch of proposed measures to make it easier to vote, muttering "I don't want some wino dragged out of the gutter to be driven to a polling place to cancel out my vote," and some people said I would have been more at home in the Roman Empire than the USA.

Nonsense. The vote is a precious enough right that it is worth registering a month or so before an election, not the same day, and worth walking or driving a few blocks to cast a ballot rather than being mollycoddled into voting from home. Voting at a precinct location,on Election Day itself, is also an experience which reinforces within individuals a sense of community, and there are fewer and fewer of those these days.

Americans have the right to be ignorant and/or apathetic, but I hope those who make that choice won't also choose to vote.

I think this levy mostly failed because the "for the kids" generalization wasn't accompanied by any specifics as to how "the kids" (rather than the faculties or administration) would benefit.

Anonymous said...

I was surprised it failed. I thought that last year's passage was like breaking through the wall after a string of failures. Also, I didn't perceive any organized opposition. In any event, I think there is some validity to the concern about the economy--in addition to the lingering strike fallout. I don't care for mail in ballots, but I am not so sure that this leads to more "no" votes.

Chuck Rightmire said...

The whole thing is moot. The real reason, which most pundits fail to recognize, is that the anti-taxers post a bunch of false charges in a big way and fool the voters into thinking there is something wrong with the schools. There is, but it is based more on a failure to have the money than in the way they spend it. I wish those who voted against the school mill levy would be honest and quit trying to hide behind false rationalizations. We need to pay more teachers and we need to pay them more throughout the state. That last figures I saw (not from the MEA-AFT) indicated that Montana ranks just above South Dakota and below Mississippi in average teachers' pay. And I know a young graduate in education who has headed to Wyoming in part because she can earn more there. Without teachers--and good teachers--our students don't learn. In today's world kids need a lot more one-on-one in the classroom. That doesn't happen with large classes. The next time someone complains about our education system to me, my first question will be: "how did you vote on the school levy?" If the answer is that they voted no, I don't think it will be worthwhile to talk to them.

Anonymous said...

I didn't look too hard, but couldn't find last year's mill levy language to compare the two. This year it stated the levy was permanent. There was an "if" behind permanent. If the district choose to levy that amount in the future. I don't know how to interpret that. The word permanent seemed emboldened to my hair stylist though,who was reminded of the public safety mill levy language mess, and thus voted No.

KIrk Dooley said...

As I always say, "Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die."

School levy rejections are not just a Montana phenomenon, as 17 of 18 such elections here in AZ went down in flames this year (and the one that passed -- in a wealthy district where the local high school plays its football games in a domed stadium -- passed by only a dozen votes). Thanks to the housing bubble, folks saw their assessments go sky high this year (at the same time the bubble popped, making the actual worth of the house drop like an anvil dropped of the side of the Grand Canyon). So their taxes went up, and here in Arizona, "tax" is a four-letter word. (Despite the best efforts of our educational system.)

So now, in the future, our kids will say either, "You want fries with that?" or "All right you mother****ers, this is a stickup!"

Ain't America great? ;-)