The Franklin County school board has begun discussions on placing before voters a renewal of a four-year half-mill property tax levy, likely to be placed on the ballot either before or at the start of, the 2020-21 school year.
At Monday evening’s workshop, Superintendent Traci Moses reported that placing the measure on the Aug. 18 primary ballot would not cost the district any additional money.
She said conducting a mail-in ballot, as was done in 2016, would run around $13,000 to $15,000. Holding a special election, as was done when the levy was first introduced in 2008, and later renewed for the first time in 2012, would run about $18,000 to $20,000.
Passage of the levy would not increase property taxes to county residents. When Franklin County first proposed the measure in 2008, the school board lowered its capital outlay millage by a similar half-mill, so there was no overall increase in school taxes.
School board member Pam Marshall said she would prefer to see the measure put on the regular ballot, at the countywide primary Aug. 18, so a larger number of voters could have their say. She said she had received flack four years ago from constituents who had issues with the strategy of the school district to put it on a mail-in ballot.
Turnout for that 2016 election was just under 25 percent, a slight improvement over the roughly 20 percent turnout in 2008 and 2012, which were both special elections, conducted in the traditional way. Primaries and general elections typically attract a much higher turnout.
Shannon Venable, the district’s director of financial services, cautioned the board that waiting until the Aug. 18 primary could pose a problem since students and teachers will have returned to school.
"It takes over $1 million out of the budget if it doesn’t pass," she said. "We would start school as normal and would have to let people go."
Moses said voters need to be informed that the district’s primary need is not to raise capital outlay money, but to cover the operational costs of maintaining the district’s facilities.
School board member Carl Whaley asked whether the district would be able to more fully educate voters on the issue by conducting a mail-in ballot. "Can we explain it a little better with a mail out?" he asked.
School board attorney Donna Duncan said the district would have to abide by state election laws as to how the ballot measure could be worded, and what materials could be included. "There’s a limit to what goes out in the mail out," she said.
When first approved in 2008, the referendum drew support from nearly two-thirds of county voters, and in its first year raised about $1.3 million. Over its first four years the referendum generated about $5.05 million.
In March 2012, the measure was renewed by a tighter majority, 54 percent of county voters, and because the tax base had begun to shrink, generated only about $3.34 million over the next four years, on average approximately $835,000 annually.
In 2016, with the mail-in ballot, more than 70 percent of those who cast ballots said yes to a four-year renewal, with the half-mill generating in the neighborhood of $900,000 annually.
Four years ago, the measure secured a majority in all eight of the county’s precincts, ranging from a high of nearly 78 percent in Eastpoint to a low of 53 percent in Alligator Point.