Trine Nelson, Ivan Alfaro

Trine Nelson and Ivan Alfaro

Registered voters in Kyrene School District will be receiving their ballots this week for its all-mail override election.

The deadline already has passed to register for the Nov. 2 election, which is asking voters to let the district keep its maintenance and operations budget – which covers basic day-to-day expenses, including salaries – 15 percent above state limits.

And at least some voters can expect a knock on their door in the coming weeks as the co-chairs of the Keep Kyrene Strong Committee prepare to canvass the district to plead for their support.

Triné Thomas Nelson of Ahwatukee, who is co-chairing the Keep Kyrene Strong Committee with Ivan Alfaro of Tempe, said she is looking for volunteers to help get the word out. They can reach her through the Kyrene/DVHS/MPHS/parents Facebook page.

At stake is about $14 million in additional annual revenue for the district, which costs an additional $160 in annual property taxes, according to the voters pamphlet. That translates into 200 teaching positions – roughly 20 percent of the district’s teachers.

While the district still has a year left on funding from its 2017 override election, the Governing Board opted to go to voters this year for a number of reasons.

First, next year promises a crowded ballot with state offices, council and school board races, and other elected positions as well as what likely will be a long list of propositions and there was concern thee override question might get lost among all those choices.

A number of school districts across the Valley are using the same logic to put their own override questions to voters while a number of municipalities around the state are putting bond issues on the ballot. 

During a school board meeting in June, the administration noted “several key ‘top of the ticket’ statewide races, including Governor and Superintendent of Public Instruction” as well as two Kyrene Governing Board positions.

This year, the board was told, “The impact is that the ballot will have few measures competing for voter attention” – especially since Tempe Union opted against putting its own override question up for voters this year.

The board also was reminded “turnout in off-cycle elections is often low, with fewer voters compelled to participate and cast a ballot.”

In 2017, Kyrene had three ballot measures on the ballot and Tempe Union had its own override question. Turnout that year was 25.5 percent, though the measures passed by margins of 63 percent (about 14,500 voters) to 37 percent (about 8,500 votes).

Moreover, should the override fail this year, the district can put the question on next year’s ballot.

The vote this year comes at a time some parents are furious with the district’s continuation of the facemask requirement, though it’s hard to say how great a portion of the electorate they comprise.

But Nelson said she believes most mask opponents won’t take their anger out on the override request.

“When you talk about what these dollars are earmarked for, we talk about support service staff – occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech therapists, our counseling program,” Nelson said. “All of which we can all kind of agree during the last 18 months are really important services that our students need.”

The override also supports instructional enrichment such as art, music, library and physical education; small class sizes and reading and math intervention programs.

Before voting unanimously last June to approve the override election, the Kyrene Governing Board heard several district representatives discuss the potential political turmoil generated by COVID-19.

In a limited survey, a working citizens committee found that only 48 percent of residents supported the override and that 54 percent of respondents had a positive impression of Kyrene.

Among the reasons people felt the district is moving in the wrong direction, Kyrene's pandemic response was among them – along with its curriculum and its emphasis on equity, diversity and inclusion, according to the citizens panel.

But after testing different messages and providing survey respondents with more information, the response to the basic override question “grew exponentially to 72 percent,” the board was told.

The citizens committee said what turned the tide was the explanation that the override supports the district’s ability to retain and attract quality teachers and provide enrichment programs and student support services.

While the board unanimously approved going for the override vote this year, some members admitted being nervous.

“I do feel a little bit apprehensive, honestly, in this political climate,” said Wanda Kolomyjec. “I think Kyrene School District has provided such an amazing service to the community but this has been such a tough year.”

She and other members also were concerned about the relatively short amount of time available for educating voters on the importance of the override.

But Rosalie Hirano, one of the citizen committee members, told the board that “all of the developments in technology with voter data” enable the Kyrene override PAC to identify supporters who haven’t voted or may have forgotten about the ballot. 

Legislation impacting mail ballots passed by the Legislature earlier this year does not affect the Kyrene or any other all-mail election this year, the Recorder's Office told AFN. Ballots will go to all registered voters automatically. 

Board member Michelle Fahy said she believed most people will respond favorably in the election if they are reminded that the disparity in state support for public education between Arizona and the national average has grown from 22 percent in 2007 to a current 44 percent – not including the infusion of one-time federal pandemic relief.

“What is so critical for our community to learn, if they don’t know, and understand is that our state funding for public education is so poor that it is what puts us in the position to have to request these bonds and overrides from our community,” Fahy said. 

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