SANTA FE, N.M. — Santa Fe Public Schools is asking voters to approve the continuation of a mill levy tax that would provide the school district with about $8.8 million over the next six years to spend primarily on building maintenance.
Though such taxes typically pass with ease and approval of the millage question that appears on the ballot for the combined SFPS and Santa Fe Community College election on Feb. 3 would not increase property taxes, support might not be so assured this time around.
“In the past, Santa Fe has been sympathetic to the public schools,” said Santa Fe County Treasurer Pat Varela, whose office distributes property tax bills. “This time, I don’t know.”
Varela based his assessment on the number of calls his office received from angry residents since property tax bills went out late last year.
“The first week, it was call after call,” he said, adding that he started referring the disaffected to SFPS.
That’s because the taxes went up in large part as a result of the Santa Fe school board exercising authority the state Legislature bestowed upon school boards nearly 20 years ago to impose a property tax hike for technology improvements without going to voters for approval.
The Education Technology Note, expected to generate up to $55 million over five years for the school district, increased property taxes by 1.5 mills, or $1.50 in taxes for every $1,000 in assessed value. With taxable values set at one-third of the assessed value, that translates to an increase of $150 per year for those owning property worth $300,000.
“I felt bad for people, especially seniors on a fixed income,” Varela said. “My mom was impacted.”
The school board levy was part of an overall big jump in property taxes in 2014, after the tax rate had remained steady for several years. That was due not only to the SFPS technology note, but also to increases in the mill rate for county government and Santa Fe Community College, among smaller increases for other entities.
The overall property tax rate in the Santa Fe Public Schools district jumped more than 3 mills in just one year from 20.074 to 23.363.
The dollar value of property taxes levied for SFPS has increased about 33 percent over the past decade from $29.1 million in 2004 to $43.7 million in 2013. Figures for tax year 2014, which include the school technology financing, aren’t yet available.
Critics called the school board’s imposition of a new property tax without the consent of voters an “end run” and even “unethical.” One school member says she’s still getting hate mail over the tax hike.
That sentiment could have an influence on the outcome of next month’s vote, Varela said. Coincidentally, voters are being asked to retain 1.5 mills in existing taxes – the same amount of the 2013 tax increase imposed by the school board on its own.
People may see the February vote as an opportunity to take back those 1.5 mills.
“People may say, ‘Wait. I need to give my opinion on this,'” Varela said.
Funding for buildings
The school district has heard the criticism loud and clear but hopes voters will recognize the critical needs the district faces.
“Our children need safe buildings and technology to learn,” Superintendent Joel Boyd said this week.
Boyd and other district officials say the technology note was needed in order for Santa Fe to catch up to other school districts in the state and nationally in terms of technology. Eighteen other school districts in New Mexico had already passed a technology note.
If the mill levy question is voted down, the district would have to find the money for building maintenance in its operational budget, which otherwise would be used to support classroom learning, Boyd said. Schools districts’ biggest source of funding is the state government’s Equalization Guarantee formula, which is based on total enrollment. But SFPS officials say those dollars don’t go as far in Santa Fe, which, along with Los Alamos, has the highest cost of living in the state.
The mill levy to be voted on next month is known as House Bill 33 funding and is used primarily for building maintenance, though other types of projects qualify.
“Lots of local contractors,” Boyd said. “The money stays in town.”
The mill levy question that will appear on the Feb. 3 ballot allows the funding to be used for any of four purposes: erecting, remodeling, making additions, providing equipment and furnishings; payments pursuant to a financing agreement for the leasing of a building or real property with an option to purchase; purchasing or improving grounds; and costs associated with administrating projects.
Administrative costs can include payments for facility maintenance and project management software, project oversight and district personnel directly involved in the projects being funded, provided the expenditures don’t exceed 5 percent of the total cost of the project.
In the past, HB-33 funding has been used for such things as carpeting at Wood Gromley Elementary and the B.F. Young Professional Development Center, furniture for science labs at De Vargas Middle School, and boilers and track and field bleachers at Santa Fe High School.
More than 30 schools, including all four district charter schools and two state charter schools, and other district-owned buildings will benefit if the tax is approved, said Kristy Janda-Wagner, the district’s executive director for operations.
“There’s not a facility that will not be touched,” she said.
Janda-Wagner said hard surfaces, such as parking lots, sidewalks and flooring, are projects commonly covered by HB-33 funding.
“And a big thing is keeping up with disability access,” she said.
Janda-Wagner, and a two-minute video the school district produced to promote the mill levy, likened the spending to money someone would use to maintain or repair their car or home.
Not an easy fix
The school district realizes that it has to mend any hard feelings that resulted from the school board’s tax action last February. SFPS has launched a campaign to educate the public on what the HB-33 mill levy is and how the funding would be used.
Outreach efforts include the promotional video, flyers sent home with students, public service announcements, email blasts and robo calls. It has also scheduled roughly 40 public presentations around the area and welcomes invitations to do more.
District officials are already practiced in addressing those disgruntled over how the school board imposed the technology tax.
At Tuesday’s school board meeting, SFPS attorney Geno Zamora said the district got “extensive” feedback from the public following the tax increase that wasn’t put on the ballot.
“The theme was primarily that folks support (the technology note), but they did not like that the public didn’t have the option to say they would support this,” he said.
Zamora said the way the state statute is written, the school board didn’t have the option to ask for voter approval. He noted that the state’s Educational Technology Act refers only to approval by vote of the school board.
In the face of the public criticism, the school board has made amending that law part of its legislative agenda for the upcoming 60-day session. The district is looking for a sponsor for an amendment that would allow the school board to choose whether to pass a technology tax or put it to a public vote.
Boyd defended the school board’s action last February, saying it did the responsible thing by surveying potential voters before exercising its authority. Of 600 people surveyed, 68 percent strongly supported the measure.
While Steven Carrillo, Susan Duncan and Linda Trujillo voted “yes” on the technology tax, Lorraine Price and Glenn Wikle voted against it, both expressing concern over the impact the tax would have on people with fixed incomes. During Tuesday’s meeting, Price went so far as to appeal to the public to stop sending her hate mail, reminding them that she voted against the tax.
Wikle, who went rogue in 2013 when he came out against a $130 million general obligation bond to fund capital projects because he said funding for new construction wasn’t needed, said Tuesday the mill levy coming up for vote in a few weeks is less controversial than other taxes.
“This is not tech funding; this is building maintenance,” he said.
Still, Wikle said he’s less confident it will be approved by voters because of the action his colleagues took last February.
Such taxes have always received good support in Santa Fe.
The last time the HB-33 mill levy question came up, in 2009, it got 75 percent support. During that same election, 81 percent of voters approved a $160 million general obligation bond.
In 2012, 75 percent of voters supported a so-called Senate Bill 9 2-mill levy, with the funding used for technology upgrades and related contracts. The $130 million general obligation bond approved in 2013 received 78 percent support.
Boyd hopes the mill levy question on the ballot Feb. 3 will get that same kind of support.
“Due to the generosity of Santa Fe voters in the past, we’ve been able to maximize this mill levy and not have to use operational funds. Hopefully, the community still sees the value,” he said.
In addition to the mill levy question, there’s one contested position on both the school board, where Maureen P. Cashmon and Peter Robert Mitchell are running for the position 2 seat, and the community college governing body, where Jack Sullivan squares off against Xubi Wilson.
Early voting has already begun, with polling locations set up at the school district’s central office, 610 Alta Vista; Room 209 at SFCC; and the county’s administration building at 102 Grant Ave. in Santa Fe.