Takeaways from the bond failure

Bison Blinds

What now? The Luther school district joined seven other school districts across the state that did not earn a 60% majority to fund new projects through property tax increases in the September 12, 2023, election. Fourteen districts said yes. Enough Luther school district voters said no to sink the proposal to build a new gym, safe rooms, and a cafeteria.

Soon after the polls closed on Tuesday at 7 PM, I got a text (while at the Town Board meeting) showing the results taped on the door of the district’s largest precinct at the Luther Community Center. I had to remind myself that I knew how to do the math to determine if the 310 yes and 159 no votes meant a supermajority in that precinct of 60% for passage. It did at 66%. But would that lead hold when results from the other precincts in Logan, Lincoln counties, plus the precincts in Jones and Arcadia, rolled in? I had my doubts.

Indeed, watching online as the votes and percentages were tallied, the bond ask failed for the third time, counting the two elections in 2019 (not to mention the bond failure in 2015, Was there one in 2018 too?). The final vote was 57.65% yes with 467 votes, and 343 no votes. It was virtually the same failure, percentage-wise, as the September 2019 election, with 90 fewer voters who came out in 2023 than they did four years ago.

The backbone of the community

Anger and hurt reared up on social media late Tuesday night and Wednesday. I empathized with the pain while being a bit alarmed at the vitriol (on both sides). I had come out in support of the bond.* The passage, to me, meant a boost for the community: morale, economic development, unity, and of course, capital improvements – renovations, new structures, safety. I’ve seen the cramped gym, the basement, and the crummy middle school cafeteria. Passage might have sparked momentum for economic development. With the short campaign, I chose the “let’s pass this thing” path, partly as a time management tool during a personally busy time, and frankly, not wanting to write another article like this one. I’d researched it all before: the financial people, construction companies, architects, bond buyers — all would make a lot of money making up the $43 million price tag. There certainly wasn’t a detailed breakdown of the costs. Also, I didn’t ask. I’ll take the hit of being apathetic – maybe a little lazy. That never works.

I enjoy a good visit with Barry Gunn, LPS superintendent. I went into our late August interview a little irritated that the election was coming so quickly without knowing about it. Still, as always, it was an excellent visit with him, full of hope for the new academic year, fully staffed even with statewide teacher shortages, with great kids. I quickly shed my irritation and went with the emotional appeal angle. That never works.

I learned a cringy lesson. I wanted to be one of the cool kids coming out in support with my little platform, The Luther Register. In exchange, I anticipated the school crowd would share my story on social media, and someone might buy an ad or throw in a few bucks for reader support. Wrong again. That never works.

The Luther Register’s single story about this election, complete with links for voting information and some history, was read less than 600 times. It’s a pitiful number. *And I apologize to readers who commented but were stuck in the approval process. I did not get a notice for new comments (probably some plugin update I missed), and I saw the pending comments too late when I looked on this website’s backend. That comment filter is necessary to block spam and vulgar comments. They are all approved now. Reading the comments gives some deeper indication of why there was opposition.

Here’s one comment:

“…we would never have to have another tax increase.” Said the Superintendant, as he asks for yet another tax increase.

I hope nobody falls for these blatant lies. Not to mention the disgusting shame tactic at the end of the article. “If you don’t vote YES, the kids will think you hate them!” Trying to guilt voters like this is abhorrent. Shame on you all.

Anonymous comment. Read the rest of the comments here.

Ouch. I feel that, and I get it.

One of the morning-after Facebook comments by a former LPS administrator was heartfelt and raw. Still, one part of it nagged at me. Paraphrasing, “those of us who drive buses, teach the kids, mentor them, spend our own money, go to games and activities,” along with parents are the only “backbone of the community.” Thank you for choosing a complex and rewarding career. Sure, you need a raise (and got one!). Who doesn’t? LPS has the largest, and likely most expensive, payroll in Luther. Our town has few companies with a large payroll and wages that don’t hover around minimum wage. Most all employers need help hiring reliable employees. Even so, many of us who work outside of public schools are also devoted to our jobs and community and can feel underappreciated and overwhelmed. Sometimes, Many times, we even spend our own money! Some of those folks may have voted no. It is not because they are “human garbage,” as someone said.

LPS, make us love you.

Where was the campaign for yes? There were a few recycled signs. But, the opposition was passionate enough to send a mailer (I’m told. I didn’t get one in my mailbox. Update, the postcard was in my mailbox on Tuesday, a week after election day. It looks a little tattered). Those mailers cost money for planning, printing, and postage. Yet those who said they would gladly pay for a property tax increase couldn’t pull together some campaign funds for a mailer or other marketing?

School officials said community meetings were a waste of time. They said the yes voters don’t attend, and the no voters are not swayed. I get that. Still, you have to rally! You have to keep asking and explaining. You have to work hard to win.

Tell us more. Include the community in your communications. Counter those controversial letter grades from the state with local academic results. Brag on your academic achievements. Share proficiencies and challenges. Explain the budget and estimate of needs. Highlight your alums. Introduce us to your teachers. Show more pictures of that leaky basement and explain why it has no routine maintenance. Tell us why everyone is getting free lunch this year. What does lunch look like in that crowded middle school cafeteria? Why did the students have to sit in the hot gym instead of in their classrooms during lunch during those 100 degree days? When is the next band concert? Share what’s working. Share the struggles. Share.

Trying again?

There’s talk of another election. Maybe soon. And there’s growing talk of trying to kick out portions of the school district by de-annexing toward Arcadia west of the school district. That sounds complicated. What would the loss of ad valorem revenue (in some high-dollar neighborhoods) do to the overall LPS budget? Would those of us remaining (if the remaining debt spreads out among property owners) pay more property taxes to cover the loss and then be asked to vote for a tax increase for these projects? Would those property taxpayers willingly step into the adjacent Edmond or Jones school districts with higher property taxes? Has anyone asked them?

That’s the thing. Has anyone asked? Is there another way? It’s easier to plan with your inside team, consultants, and bond advisors (who get paid if the bond passes). Those in power probably have considered all other avenues like grants or financing options. It’s a little more complicated than having a bunch of bake sales, no doubt. But maybe there’s a non-$43 million option? Call the community to the table and find out. While at it, you’ll foster a relationship with the stakeholders of the district.

Here’s one of my radical ideas. Could we build a sports complex to be shared by the town, schools, and community? Raise private dollars, and explore other public funding, grants or loans for a multi-use facility that would generate revenue (and jobs) via tournaments, events, or memberships to pay for it. (Include pickleball and volleyball courts, along with basketball. Add studios for yoga, exercise, music, or art classes, and maybe even a lazy river or indoor pool!). The facility could hold concerts, tradeshows, and other events. Eastern Oklahoma County does not have an indoor complex of this kind, making this idea interesting for the tourism it could bring to our community on Route 66, our unique niche. It could also be the community safe room.

There are many ways to educate. Sometimes, I reflect on my family’s home education experience and joke we did it with a used box of crayons, borrowed books, one bent paper clip, and duct tape. Some folks say we had the luxury to do that, and I agree. But it was also a tremendously worthy (and sometimes difficult financial) sacrifice. Honestly, we did it with a beautiful community with shared resources. There are also private school and hybrid schools. The point is, while there might always be traditional public schools, K-12 education is changing. Why not see where it makes sense to learn from each other? Property owners utilizing other methods of education still pay property taxes that fund public education. But we don’t use it. Still, I voted yes. I’m an easy sell.

Luther is growing. There are new homes and new members of the community. Our area is the last frontier surrounding Oklahoma City. We’ve had the opportunity to watch the growth in other areas — Harrah, Piedmont, Deer Creek — and can use that perspective to manage what happens here. Why not put all the data on the table — growing community, viable education alternatives, creative solutions — to understand our differences and find solutions? 

(This story was updated to include a picture of a campaign mailer against the measure. 9.20.23)

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  1. My wife and I voted no. We would have seriously considered voting yes if the bond was only for a cafeteria and safe rooms. Don’t sell us a new gym with stories of safe rooms. Separate the needs from the wants and present two bonds. You might get the needs bond passed…

  2. I think the educators are always overlooked by n these “pleas”. And I’ll never understand the obsession of small rural towns begging to become the very populus that drove a lot of people into your communities already.

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