Education

Mail-in election for school funds underway

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For the first time, all Taos County voters will be getting their ballot for an upcoming election in the mail.

The election is a tax reauthorization that comes before local voters every six years. The funds, known as SB 9 funds (so named because of Senate Bill 9 that authorizes the tax) go toward routine maintenance for school buildings, like leaky roofs and simple repairs, and some technology upgrades.

Ballots were mailed to all registered Taos County voters Tuesday (Jan. 8), according to Taos County Clerk Anna Martínez.

Voters will have slightly less than a month to fill out the ballot and return it to the Taos County Clerk's Office. Ballots must be received to the office by Feb. 5 at 7 p.m.

Voters can either drop their ballot off at the clerk's office (105 Albright Street in Taos), or they can return them by mail using a prepaid envelope provided with the ballot.

"It's not some junk piece of mail," said Martínez. "It is an official election."

Martínez suggested voters return their ballot well before the Feb. 5 election date. "Even if you send it from here in (Taos), give yourself at least a week," she said.

The ballots were mailed out by a third-party vendor, Automated Election Services. However, the clerk's office will process the ballots the same way it would for a primary or general election.

The election will ask voters in each of the county's school districts -- Taos, Questa and Peñasco -- to either approve or reject reauthorization of the existing tax. A simple majority of voters in each school district are needed to approve the reauthorization.

Property taxes would remain the same if the measure passes because the current tax level has been in place since 2012.

The SB 9 funds are derived from a two mill levy (property tax). A mill is $1 on every $1,000 of the taxable value of a property. A person with a home assessed at $300,000 would pay $600.

The money is a significant chunk of change for schools. The Taos Municipal School District gets about $1 million a year from the tax, while area charter schools get around $850,000, according to Taos Superintendent Dr. Lillian Tórres.

In 2018, lawmakers in Santa Fe approved a reform to school elections. One reform moved school board elections from February to November so they coincide with other elections, like those for water and sanitation districts.

The other impact of the 2018 re-write of the Local Elections Act was that school elections held at other times of the year be conducted only by mail-in ballots, instead of staffing polling places.

Yet schools aren't able to re-align the time frame for collecting and using mill levy funds to match up with the new election schedule, said Peñasco Superintendent Marvin MacAuley.

"It has to stay within that six-year schedule," MacAuley said. "We can't push [the election] for another year. It's just a matter of the scheduling."

Because this is a special election, the school districts are on the hook for the cost of conducting the election, which includes printing ballots, lawyer fees and the time it takes to count the votes.

Cost is based on the number of registered voters in each school district. The Taos area, with nearly 19,000 registered voters, will have to pay about $25,000, according to the county clerk. The Peñasco district, with only about 2,000 voters, must pay around $3,000. Questa will be billed about $3,500, Martínez said.

Charter schools will be helping pay for the cost of the election and, should the measure pass in Taos, they'll also receive a share of the funds. Six schools in the Taos area are charters, while the remainder are traditional public schools. Both receive state funds and abide by state education laws.

Though each district conducts its own election, they are unified in the messaging to voters that SB-9 funds are essential to keeping schools up to date.

In Peñasco, the superintendent said, "the number one priority is to keep our campus maintained and in operating order." A previous project that was paid for by SB-9 funds was the installation of barriers to prevent heat loss through skylights. Upcoming projects could include updating classroom technology and replacing the 30-year-old score board in the middle school gym; the district plans to refurbish the older high school scoreboard, but even that "takes money," he said.

"Every time we have to buy sealer for tile or replace a window, this is where that money comes from," MacAuley added.

The mill levy elections are generally well supported but are also marked by low turnout. Approximately 5 percent of Taos-area voters participated in the 2013 mill levy election.

However, voters in the Peñasco Valley that year decidedly rejected the tax reauthorization in a 326 to 284 vote, according to Martínez. Taos News archives suggest some voters were worried about a charter school in the community taking an out-sized portion of the funds. That school has since closed.

The Peñasco school board decided to send the question back to the voters that June. That election worked in the school district's favor, with the tax reauthorization passing by a 20-vote margin.

If a registered voter does not receive a ballot in the mail, they can fill out a provisional ballot at the Taos County Clerk's Office, said Martínez. For more information on the mail-in election, contact the clerk's office at (575) 737-6380.

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