Two years ago, when the Flagler County School Board wanted to convince voters to extend a modest property tax that adds about $2 million to the district’s revenue, it placed the initiative on that November’s general election ballot to bank on a stronger turnout and time enough, that fall, to educate voters on the importance of the levy.
The board is again having to ask voters to extend a different tax this fall. This time it’s the half-cent sales tax supplement that’s been in effect for the past 10 years, and that generates $4 million a year for the district. The tax revenue helped build Belle Terre Elementary school, and vastly increase the district’s investments in technology. To be renewed, voters must approve. There was no doubt that the school board would place the initiative on this fall’s ballot. The question was which: the primary or the general election ballot.
In a perplexing move Tuesday, the board, in a brief special meeting on the matter, voted to go with the August 14 primary.
The board considered several pros and cons about the date. On the plus side, board members are calculating that if they can make a big get-out-the-vote push that focuses on school employees and parents, the initiative has a stronger chance of passing than if it were to contend with many others on the November ballot. Board members also did not want their initiative to get lost in the numerous ballot measures in November, including about a half dozen proposed constitutional amendments. The August primary will also feature at two contested school board elections. Those elections are ostensibly non-partisan, and as matters stand now, they will be decided in the August election, presumably drawing out voters interested in school issues. Board members are banking on that turnout to also help push the half-cent measure through.
There is also another half-cent sales tax proposal likely going before voters, that one put forth by the county, with its revenue to be split between the county and the cities. That, too, is an extension of an existing tax, but for now its details are hung up in a tug of war between the county and Palm Coast, who disagree over the way to split the $4 million annual revenue. The school board is calculating that the county-city measure will end up on the November ballot. Board members don’t want their measure tainted by the county-city measure as that battle draws damaging publicity: another reason to go with the August primary ballot.
Curiously, in 2010 the school board almost competed with another controversial tax measure that seemed headed for the ballot, a new tax levy supported by some of the county’s business establishment whose revenue would have financed “economic development” projects. The proposal was poorly planned and more poorly received, and was pulled from the ballot before the November election, leaving the school district’s measure as the only tax referendum on that ballot. There were no less than 29 items to vote on in that election, including six proposed constitutional amendments. The school tax won approval with a 61 percent of the vote. (See those election results here.)
On the other hand, far fewer people will be turning out for the August primary than will for the November general election. School employees and parents are finishing up their summer in mid-August (though school resumes about then). And the August primary will be heavily weighed toward Republican voters, because most of the Flagler County primaries being contested that day are essentially Republican contests: The sheriff’s race is featuring three serious Republican candidates battling each other, including incumbent Don Fleming. The Democratic race in that contest features one serious candidate—Jim Manfre, the former sheriff—and one who has didn’t poll enough in a previous contest to be considered particularly serious.
The race for Supervisor of Elections is heavily contested, but entirely by Republicans; the Democratic incumbent, Kimberle Weeks, is facing no opposition in the primary. The county commission features only one primary battle—between Republicans Charlie Ericksen and incumbent Alan Peterson. The race for Clerk of Court features only two Republicans, who’ll battle it out in the primary (incumbent Gail Wadsworth and Ken Mazzie). The race for the newly formed congressional district 6, which covers all of Flagler, features a half dozen Republicans and just two Democrats. The Republicans in that race are campaigning as if the true election will be the primary, not the general, when Republicans assume the seat will be Republican regardless.
In sum, the August 14 primary will be the playfield of Republican and tea party activists, in disproportion to more tax-friendly voters—that is, younger voters with a stake in schools, left-leaning independents and Democrats.
Nevertheless, the school district is going into its tax levy campaign with a few advantages: a joint meeting of the county’s governments, including representatives from every city, was fraught with prevarication except one issue: all governments agreed that they should support the school district’s half-cent sales tax. Last week, the school district got another, unexpected gift: Local Tea Party Chairman Tom Lawrence’s endorsement. Still, what politicians say doesn’t necessarily align with what voters will do. The school board is preparing a focused campaign—an education campaign, its officials like to stress, because they’re not allowed to politicize the issue—to win over voters.
“School Board members, the Superintendent and others acting on behalf of the Board may express support for the referendum as long as no district funds are expended in the process,” cautions an April 19 memo to school employees, from Kristy Gavin, the district’s attorney. In other words, a school employee on his or her own time, is free to advocate and campaign for the initiative (or against it). That goes for board members and the superintendent, too. But none of them are allowed to, say, use school resources—computers, cell phones, copiers, time—to advocate for the initiative.
The definition of “advocacy” gets interesting. All school employees are free to “educate” anyone on the initiative, even on school grounds. District money may even be spent on that sort of education. “Public funds may be expended on communications consisting only of factual information,” Gavin’s memo reads.