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Mail in your vote for school technology tax

Google Chrome computers like this one in use at Piñon Elementary in Santa Fe two years ago are among the items funded by the tax levy that’s up for renewal in a mail-in election in the Santa Fe school district. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Voters in the Santa Fe school district are entering a brave new world this month.

For a property tax measure in support of technology in the schools – not a tax increase, but maintaining a levy that’s been in place since 2014 – the school district is holding a mail-in election. Voting by mail for a special election like this one is mandated under a new state law that made several changes to how local elections are organized.

Voter participation is easy. Ballots were sent out last week. You mark the ballot for or against and place it in an “official inner envelope” that remains sealed until votes are counted. Put that into the outer, postage-paid, already addressed envelope, which has a place for voters to print their names and list a year of birth, and sign. Drop the ballot in the mail, soon. The ballots must be received by the county clerk by March 5 to count. You can also hand-deliver them to the clerk’s office at 102 Grant St. downtown.

The Journal North supports maintaining the 1.5 mill tax, which amounts to $150 a year on a home with an assessed value of $300,000. The money goes in part toward putting a computing device in the hands of every student in grades 2 through 6 while they’re at school.

The district says none of the $11 million raised annually goes for administrative costs. It also pays for 30-35 digital coaches and technical staff, instructional support for teachers, network and wireless systems, and facility improvements to accommodate the technology. Five charter schools get about $2 million of the total yearly revenue.

All of these expenses are part of the new basic infrastructure for 21st-century schools and therefore a good use of taxpayer dollars. Pencils and chalkboards aren’t enough any more.

This election also will serve as a test of public support for the local schools, more so than in the past.

Our school elections have always been low-profile affairs. They’ve been standalone events in February, separated from the hubbub of June primaries or November general elections that gain attention because of big races for president, governor or senator.

When 10 percent of registered voters in the Santa Fe school district showed up at the polls to approve a tax increase and bond issue, and elect two school board members in 2016, it was a near record. Usually, only 5 percent turn out for school elections.

Under the new state law changes, regular school elections will be moved from February to November in odd-numbered years, consolidated with city council elections. That should increase voter interest and turnout.

The voting-by-mail required for a special election under the new state statute also adds to the potential for a bigger turnout. About 86,000 ballots have been mailed out for the SFPS technology measure, reminding every registered voter about the election and making voting easier.

The changes have diminished what one might call a home-field advantage for school tax proposals. When a tax levy is on the ballot in an election that not many people pay attention to, avid public school supporters and employees become the most likely to get out to a polling place and vote.

So what happens when every single voter gets a mailed ballot?

Check out the results in vote-by-mail balloting in Albuquerque that concluded last week. The school board there proposed three property tax measures, including two that would have raised taxes, in the first special election under the local voting changes mandated by the state.

The voter turnout was nearly 29 percent – a vast increase from 3-5 percent other recent, not-by-mail school elections in Albuquerque – and all three tax measures failed.

So, bringing in more voters – a democratic and Democratic ideal – may come with risks to what in the past has been a comfortable political environment for school leaders when it comes to gaining electoral support for public education funding.

Look for that envelope labeled “official election mail” – it’s not junk mail – and return the ballot ASAP. This time, don’t take it for granted that someone else will make sure the Santa Fe Public Schools gets the support it needs.