1,413 YES � 1,085 NO These voters just beat the rush at the National Guard Armory as they completed voting shortly before 6 p.m. Tuesday. In the hour before the polls closed at 7 p.m., scores of people descended on the building, particularly from the Southeast Ward, to cast their ballots in the opt-out election. By David Lias Lisa Swanson found herself choking back sobs Wednesday morning � for all of the right reasons.
As usual, she went to her son�s third-grade classroom to volunteer her assistance.
�I was sitting in the back waiting to be told what I needed to do, and I was just stirred, listening to the teacher work with the kids,� Swanson said, �and I realized what we just did was preserve the quality of what�s happening in the classroom.
�I was trying to stop crying so I could get somebody back there to work with me,� she said. �It reminded me what all of this was about.�
Patrons in the Vermillion school district voted Tuesday to opt-out of property tax limitations by as much as $800,000 annually for the next five years.
The final result saw 1,413 favoring the opt-out with 1,085 opposing the measure for a 57-43 percent margin.
Vermillion School Board President Tom Craig noted shortly after midnight Wednesday, after the final vote in the election had been counted, that the successful outcome of Tuesday�s election would not have been possible without the efforts of Judy Zwolak, Paddy Rosdail, Swanson and other members of the Vermillion PTA.
�My reaction to the final results are a sigh of relief and joy together. It reminds me of when the community passed the bond issue (for improvements to the high school),� Craig said. �I�ve always felt that Vermillion was a progressive community, a community that puts education as a number one priority and looks out for its children and its students.
�I think this reinforces that Vermillion is still a leader in South Dakota when it comes to providing quality education for our students,� he said. �I�m just very happy that we had a good turnout and it did pass.�
Grass roots effort
Several months ago the local PTA formed Save Our Schools (SOS), a steering committee with a goal of holding a successful property tax freeze opt-out election in the Vermillion School District.
SOS was organized when PTA members feared further cuts to the Vermillion School District�s general fund would seriously harm the quality of public education offered in the community.
SOS began a grass roots effort late last year by gathering signatures on pledge cards.
The Vermillion School Board had noted that if the association could gather 1,000 signatures, it would make its third attempt in the last decade at an opt-out.
SOS members carried the yellow pledge cards with them wherever they went, often approaching strangers and asking them to make a pledge to financially support education.
They stood out in the cold to greet people as they entered the school or DakotaDome to attend local athletic events, asking for signatures.
In mid-January, Zwolak presented a stack of 992 pledge cards to the Vermillion School Board, and said more cards were on the way.
In turn, the board agreed to opt-out of the state�s property tax limitation by $800,000 annually for five years.
And rather than letting citizens circulate petitions to refer the decision, board members voted in January to put the issue to a public vote March 15.
An exhausted Zwolak went home Tuesday night before all of the votes were counted.
�I�m very happy with the outcome,� she said Wednesday morning. �I think the community realized that investing in our public schools is really good for Vermillion. I think the success of this campaign hinged on educating the people on state funding, and how it is lacking, and what it has done to the Vermillion School District over the past few years.�
Future cuts would have been particularly hard on both the school district and the Vermillion community, Zwolak said.
�The people need to understand that Judy Zwolak and Paddy Rosdail and Lisa Swanson were the three women that spearheaded this action,� Craig said. �The community and the students and the school board owe them a huge, huge thanks.�
The opt-out campaign, Zwolak said, began with the PTA, and was taken up by SOS, made up of a cross-section of the local population. SOS didn�t rest after the board�s January decision. They, in fact, became even busier.
Swanson prepared a power point presentation demonstrating the financial woes being experienced by the school district, and the reasons SOS believed an opt-out was vital.
She presented it at two separate public forums, held on Saturday mornings as the March 15 election day approached.
She also visited meetings of the city�s various civic organizations and social groups, selling the need for additional funding for the school district.
In recent weeks, SOS members and VHS students went door-to-door to remind people to vote March 15.
They asked supporters of the bond issue to place bright red signs with a simple message � Vote Yes March 15 � in their yards.
SOS members stayed busy even on election day, making phone calls to remind people to go to the polls at the National Guard Armory Tuesday before they closed at 7 p.m.
�They got this whole thing organized, the pledge cards, the yard signs, calling people Tuesday to remind them to vote, information meetings ? these past two months, they have done a tremendous amount of work,� Craig said at the armory early Wednesday morning. �It is because of them that we have this issue approved, so now we�re going to move on.�
�We knew this was going to be a challenge,� Zwolak said. �Again, we are asking people in the community to pay higher taxes, and it wasn�t fun for us to ask. I think the community is showing they are supportive when they voted for this, because it�s money out of people�s pockets.�
Failure meant cuts
The success of the opt-out Tuesday means the school board will not implement $350,000 in proposed cuts for the 2005-06 school year. The board will, however, still need to trim $100,000 from the general fund for the next school year.
Because of the timing of tax collections, the school district will receive half the annual opt-out request, or $400,000, during 2005-06. Full funding of the opt-out request will begin the following school year.
In mid-February, the school board identified approximately $350,000 of cuts in the general fund that would have to be made if the opt-out failed.
The cuts, if necessary, would have taken a wide swath through many line items in the fund. Two teachers would have been eliminated from elementary instruction to save $75,000; cuts would have been made in personnel, textbooks and supplies at the middle school to the tune of $48,000. There also would have been trimming of personnel and supplies at the high school to save just over $78,000.
Had Tuesday�s vote failed, a guidance counselor, a librarian, and two clerical staff would have been eliminated from support services, and
the school nurse would have been reduced to a half-time position to reduce expenditures in operations and support services by over $125,000.
A wide range of co-curricular activities would have been eliminated, from cheerleading and class advisors, to quiz bowl and the art club, to save nearly $13,000. Cuts also would have been pending in physical education and music instruction to the tune of $11,300 had the opt-out not been approved.
Help from Pierre needed
Craig is grateful that patrons of the school district have shown they support education. It�s now time for officials in Pierre to do the same thing, he said.
�I think that not just Vermillion, but all school districts need to become very, very active,� Craig said, �in lobbying their legislators and officials in Pierre to deal with this problem. They should not put on the local districts to go through an opt-out.
�We already know that 111 district out of 168 districts have attempted to opt-out,� he said.
Craig added that the opt-out is, at best, at temporary solution to Vermillion�s school financial woes. Five years from now, he said, if Pierre doesn�t improve the funding formula, �we�re going to be back asking the community to opt-out again, except that it will probably be for more than $800,000 next time,� he said. �That�s just to maintain where we are; that�s not to improve anything. Definitely, it�s a state problem, it�s a problem that Pierre needs to address and solve.�
Craig, along with school board members Mark Bottolfson and Nick Merrigan, went to the state capital earlier this year during the legislative session. �There is support around the state (for more funding),� Craig said. �There is a groundswell beginning. It�s coming slowly, but I think it will eventually make an impact and I think it will force legislators to address the
�We need to have continued efforts to have a unified voice going to the state Legislature saying this is a problem that needs to be addressed,� Swanson said. �I�m so frustrated that they (the Legislature) force communities to be divided on this issue. We could focusing our efforts on building our communities, so I�m excited about being able to focus our efforts on positive things like that now.�
�The state (Legislature) really is to blame for this problem,� Zwolak said, referring to the money woes being felt by public school districts across South Dakota.
Gov. Mike Rounds notes that school districts have received additional funding from the state, she said, and should be able to fund their programs and teachers on that amount without having to opt-out.
�He knows that school districts across the state can�t do that,� Zwolak said. �He knows that he�s forcing communities to opt-out of the property tax freeze. I really think our efforts have to be at the state level. I don�t want to have to go through this again in five years.�
It�s important for efforts to take place in the Vermillion community, also, Swanson said, so that everyone sees themselves as part of the school system.
�There are still a large portion of people who voted against it, and I can see the argument against higher taxes. Nobody likes to pay higher taxes,� Swanson said. �But we still need to make sure that everyone is included in feeling a part of what makes our school system good.�
Froke is grateful of the high level of public interest in Tuesday�s election. The contrasts evident Tuesday compared to the Vermillion School District�s last attempt at an opt-out were significant.
In September 2003, only 17 percent of eligible voters went to the polls to decide the fate of a opt-out request of $600,000 annually.
Nearly 60 percent of the people who cast ballots in that election voted against the opt-out.
Tuesday�s outcome was starkly different. Thirty percent of eligible voters went to the polls. More than 56 percent of them voted in favor of the opt-out.
In 2003, voters in the Northeast/Rural wards gave a big thumbs-down to the opt-out idea, with 275 people voting against it and 108 voting favorably.
This week, the resistance to the idea had lessened considerably in those wards, with 352 voting against it and 332 voting in favor of the opt-out.
Voters from the Northwest/Central wards rejected the opt-out in 2003 by a vote of 179 for, 294 against.
On Tuesday, citizens from those wards favored the opt-out 460 to 340.
The Vermillion National Guard Armory, the polling place for Tuesday�s election, was overwhelmed by voters in the waning hours of election day. A great number of them were from the Southeast Ward.
Beginning at approximately 6 p.m. Tuesday, people from that ward had to wait in line, many for nearly an hour, to cast their ballots.
Over 1,000 residents of the Southeast Ward voted in the election, and just over 60 percent of them supported the opt-out.
A slim majority of Southeast Ward residents supported the failed 2003 opt-out attempt, with 323 voting in favor of the measure and 303 against.
�I�m very appreciative of the community coming together, regardless if people voted for or against the opt-out election,� Superintendent Mark Froke said. �The community came together and considered this issue in terms of what is good for the students, the school district, the community and their own personal situation.
�Residents of this school district spent a lot of time considering this issue,� he said, �and I appreciate that. There were many leaders who took the initiative to provide information to the community and increase voter turnout. We feel we have the will of the public identified.�
It�s important, Froke said, for the school district to build on Tuesday�s success throughout the community �to develop an even closer partnership between the school district and the community,� he said. �In addition to the financing that was so desperately needed for the Vermillion School District, that�s another component that�s come out of this.�
Like Craig, Froke expressed deep thanks to the hard work of the Vermillion PTA and SOS.
�I can�t say enough positive things about them. They worked tirelessly in promoting the opt-out election, and they were clearly successful, particularly in seeing that there were 1,000 more votes cast in this election compared to the last,� he said. �There is a real interest in education in this community. We need to continue to build on that interest and build a stronger bond between the school and the community.�
�This is what we had to do,� Zwolak said, �to make sure that we keep the great school system that we have.�