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.