The Santa Fe school board has voted in favor of a plan to hold a joint election with Santa Fe Community College in February, with both entities asking local voters to approve about $95 million in general obligation bonds to improve facilities at public schools and the college campus.
The school board voted 4-0 Tuesday to hold the election. Board member Linda Trujillo, who is stepping down in December, was not present for the vote. The community college’s governing board is expected to approve a similar measure Oct. 25.
This is not the first time the school district and college have joined forces on an election — they did so in 2016, for example, when voters elected new board members — but it is the first time both have put a bond question to voters on the same ballot.
While combining the two bond elections will save money and perhaps increase voter turnout, it could pose risks. The school district’s bond issue, which would raise an estimated $72 million, would require a 2-mill property tax levy over six years, and the college’s $24 million bond request would call for a 0.35-mill levy over four years.
While local voters often come out in support of such bond measures to improve school facilities — most recently passing the school district’s four-year, $100 million general obligation bond in February to upgrade facilities and overhaul the campus of the old De Vargas Middle School — results of two special elections earlier this year may be an indication that residents have become weary of tax increases.
Voters in May rejected the city of Santa Fe’s request to tax sugary beverages to fund preschool programs, and Santa Fe County’s proposal last month for a gross receipts tax increase to pay for public safety and behavioral health initiatives also failed.
Linda Siegle, president of the community college’s governing board, said it’s hard to tell if the two boards’ joint effort will backfire.
“We know that the public has not been thrilled about supporting gross receipts tax increases,” she said.
Still, Siegle said she sees a benefit in holding one joint election rather than two separate votes.
“Maybe doing it together will help people come out,” she said. “I don’t see a downside.”
In addition, the election will cost each side about $25,000, saving thousands of taxpayer dollars, she said.
Santa Fe school board President Lorraine Price said Wednesday that both boards must inform voters that passing the bond measures will not raise their property taxes.
But, Siegle said, if the bond issues are approved, property taxes also won’t go down — a point some voters critical of such bonds often have made. Instead, bond passage will extend property tax increases that voters passed in previous elections.
School board members Steven Carrillo and Maureen Cashmon said the money is needed for capital projects that would be difficult to finance with limited state funding for operations.
“This mill is very important for us,” Carrillo said. “It’s money to maintain our facilities. In the same way that people maintain their homes, we have to maintain our schools, and this is the money we use to do that with.”
Cashmon agreed. “If we didn’t have this money, we would have to take it out of operations, and the minute we take it out of operations, there is less money going into the classroom,” she said.
But both acknowledged there is a concern regarding voter fatigue.
“I don’t think voters are getting tired of these requests,” Carrillo said. “If anything, I think voters have election fatigue. It seems like we have so many elections.”
One mill equals $1 for every $1,000 of assessed property value. Assessed value is one-third of a property’s market value. So, a homeowner with property valued at $300,000 could expect to pay $200 a year for the school district’s 2-mill levy, and $35 a year for the community college’s proposal.
School district voters last approved a 2-mill levy in 2012. At that time, school leaders said the bond would generate more than $12 million per year. Carl Gruenler, the district’s financial officer, said last year the bond brought in just under $11 million for the district. About 12 percent of the revenue raised went to charter schools.
Along with the $100 million bond voters passed earlier this year, they also approved in 2016 a three-year renewal of an $11 million annual property tax levy to fund technology upgrades in public schools and the purchase of student computers. The school board used its executive power to impose those taxes for the first two years of a five-year plan to improve technology.
If voters approve the February initiative at the polls, new bond money would go toward improvements to libraries, gyms and playgrounds, and toward the purchase of classroom computers. The money could not be used to initiate new construction projects or pay salaries.
The community college would use the $24 million to improve its automotive and greenhouse technology classrooms and upgrade its fitness center, among other projects. The school last held a bond vote in 2010 when voters approved $35 million to build its new Higher Education Center on Siringo Road and for campus upgrades and repairs.
If the college governing board approves the joint election, the two parties would work with the Santa Fe County Clerk’s Office to choose polling sites for the Feb. 6 election.