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Mailing it in for Santa Fe’s public schools

There are a few major takeaways from the big vote favoring a property tax to support Santa Fe Public Schools.

Google Chrome computers like this one have become part of standard classroom equipment in Santa Fe through a property tax for technology that was renewed by voters in a vote-by-mail election. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

In the area’s first mail-in balloting, tallied on Tuesday night, 59 percent of a huge turnout supported retention of a 1.5-mill property tax – that’s $150 year on a $300,000 home – to support technology programs in the Santa Fe schools.

The $11 million annually for five years goes for things like getting access to a laptop for every student in grades two through six at school and Chromebooks for students in grades seven through 12 that they can take home. School officials said that 30 to 35 jobs, including for digital learning coaches, also rode on the outcome of the election.

So, this election showed:

• If what you want is more participation in the democratic process, vote-by-mail elections work. Sending out ballots to 85,000 registered voters helped produce a turnout of 34 percent – more than three times even the heaviest voter participation for previous school elections over the past two or three decades.

School elections, held separately away from the major election days that feature high-profile state and national political contests, previously had attracted only a coterie of the most interested local citizens and avid public school supporters.

The turnout (or whatever you call voter participation when the voters no longer have to actually “turn out” to cast ballots) for the school tax election nearly matched the 37.6 percent in the special election in 2017 in which Santa Fe city voters rejected a controversial soda tax.

More than $4 million was spent pro and con in that divisive campaign. It’s impressive that simply going to mail ballots produced almost the same turnout percentage in an election that had no advertising beyond the school district’s informational efforts.

• Santa Fe voters are different.

A recent change in state law governing the timing and methods used for local elections prompted a series of recent special elections by mail on school tax measures around New Mexico. The tax measures failed in Albuquerque – which also saw a huge increase in the number of voters with mail balloting – as well as in Bernalillo, Bloomfield, Questa and Reserve.

The conventional wisdom was that more voters meant more tax opposition. Santa Fe Public Schools leaders certainly had some nervousness about the outcome this time after consistent support for school taxes in Santa Fe in the past.

No one had to read the newspapers or be hit by robo-calls to know there was a tax measure to decide on – ballots showed up in the mail box. But Santa Fe voters still approved the technology tax again by close to the same margin they had three years ago in a conventional walk-in (and small turnout) election.

• It appears there continues to be solid community support for the Santa Fe public schools, despite controversies over the district’s showings in various accountability measures enacted under the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez.

• Anti-tax sentiment, historically low in Santa Fe, that showed up in the soda tax vote and then sloshed over to kill a Santa Fe County gross receipts tax increase proposal, also in 2017, may be retreating. But … in the schools’ technology tax election, there was no tax increase to consider, just a renewal.

The best news is that the funding was approved for an important part of providing a 21st-century education for Santa Fe students.