Overall, the statewide pass rate on school elections in 2020 is somewhat lower than what has occurred in the past, but the results are mixed, said Randie Stein, managing director of Stifel, Nicolaus & Company, Incorporated.
Infographic by Muska Olumi/ AZEdNews
“While near the average, the M&O override pass rate was higher than average, and the DAA override pass rate was substantially higher than average. The bond pass rate though, fell far below the annual norm,” Stein said.
How rural school districts’ ballot measures performed
Urban and suburban school districts’ ballot measures had higher approval rates that rural ones did this year.
“With respect to urban vs. rural performance, Maricopa and Pima counties certainly fared better than the remaining 13 counties in 2020,” Stein said.
“Twenty-five bond and override questions were posed to voters in the two biggest counties and 88% of those questions passed,” Stein said. “Conversely, six of 17 – 35% – of these questions passed in the remainder of the state.”
For example, Florence Unified’s $75 million bond election failed, while Riverside Elementary’s $790,000 bond for similar items passed.
“This though is not highly unusual – as it is not uncommon for school districts in urban areas to outperform those in more rural settings,” Stein said.
That said, there are certainly examples of urban school districts over the past 20 years that have struggled to earn voter approval for bond and override questions, examples of districts in more rural areas that have good bond and override question approval records, and districts in both rural and urban settings that have seen mixed results over the years, Stein said.
Peoria Unified’s $125.2 million bond measure was voted down, while Bagdad Unified’s M&O $350,000 K-8 and $530,000 9-12 overrides were approved.
A closer look at M&O overrides
M&O overrides showed a significant increase in pass rates this year.
“Although this is not a straight line over the past several years, there does seem to be a higher pass rate associated with M&O override continuations than there is with new or increase overrides,” Stein said.
Several plausible factors could be contributing to this, including “continuation” language on the ballot, no tax change situation, and districts with current overrides that have previously secured good community support, Stein said.
For example, voters approved a continuance of Dysart Unified’s $22.2 million 15% maintenance and operations budget override, while voters opposed Safford Unified’s $1.6 million 10% maintenance and operations budget override.
“While the number of school district M&O Override questions seemed right in line with prior years, the number of bond questions was relatively low,” Stein said. “This may point to a more immediate school district concern, particularly in light of COVID uncertainty, for on-going operational needs over longer-term capital improvements.”
A closer look at bond elections
Certainly, some of the restraint on the number of bond questions and the low pass rate may be attributable to the pandemic and resulting economic situation, but this should not be viewed in a vacuum, Stein said.
“The prior five years, 2015 through 2019, saw record levels of school district bond election activity – which may also have contributed to a ‘down’ year in 2020,” Stein said.
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“For the 2015 through 2019 period, not only were the number of bond questions posed relatively high, but the total amount requested averaged over $1 billion per year and the total bond amount approved topped $4.5 billion,” Stein said.
Voters approved Roosevelt Elementary’s $90 million bond election, while they voted down Thatcher Unified’s $9 million bond.
Why the DAA override results are interesting
The outcome of the district additional assistance override questions is worth noting – even though very few questions are on the ballot each year, Stein said.
“Prior to 2015, the DAA override was the ugly duckling of the school district bond and override questions with pass rates of 40% and below for several years,” Stein said. “Beginning in 2015 though, the annual pass rate has not been lower than 80%.”
There have been 29 DAA questions asked from 2015 through 2020, and 27 of these, including all three in 2020, have been successful for an overall pass rate of 93 percent, Stein said.
Voters approved Creighton Elementary’s $2.9 million, Balsz Elementary’s $1.4 million, and Alhambra Elementary’s $5 million district additional assistance overrides.
What the elections tell us
“The outcome of November elections reminds us every year of the unique circumstances in which each school district operates,” Stein said.
“Regardless of the current economic situation, political conditions, socioeconomic composition of the district, or the urban/rural location of the district, the relationships school districts have with their local communities varies and often appears set in stone – or at least wet cement,” Stein said.
“Over the years, whether it is a record of passing bond and override elections or failing them, local communities have a tendency to respond somewhat consistently to school district bond and override questions,” Stein said.
“In some situations, it may take monumental change over several years, on many fronts, to shift from regular rejection of school district bond and override questions to consistent approval,” Stein said.
More on elections and ballot measures
This was a record election, but only about 75 percent of the adult population who could vote did vote, said Paul Bentz with HighGround Public Relations.
“One out of every four votes stayed home, because they’re not even registered to vote,” Bentz said.
This year Arizonans came close to record participation with 3.4 million voters, which is 79.9 percent turnout and the high is 80.1 percent, Bentz said.
“It is the highest amount of voters we’ve had in the past 20 years,” Bentz said.
With the presidential election there was higher than usual voter turnout, which usually happens in the years that the president is up for election, Bentz said.
This year, likely voters going into the election were 40 percent Republican, 32 percent Democratic and 28 percent Independent and Other, Bentz said.
This year there was a strong effort by Democrats to get voters to vote in the first two weeks of early voting in Arizona, and Republicans made up more of the vote on Election Day votes and among late mail-in ballots, which was “different from what we typically see,” Bentz said.
“The other thing that contributed to that was that the President messaged do not trust the early voting system – vote on Election Day,” Bentz said.
It was opposite of what we saw a couple years ago when Republicans voted early and Democrats and Independents voted late, Bentz said.
“We had more than 2.4 million people vote before election day,” Bentz said. “More than 3 million voters voted, that was 700,000 more voters than voted four years ago.”
Bentz noted there was an increase in younger voters, Democratic and Independent voters and voters who moved to Arizona from other places.
“Maricopa County is the dominant force in our elections,” Bentz said. “The amount of votes in rural Arizona were the amount of votes Republicans were able to gain on a statewide basis. Rural is offset by how much they lose in Pima County.”
“The blue wave was real. The difference being here that I like to say the Republicans grabbed the red sandbags and fortified the beach and battened down the hatches,” Bentz said.
The answer to “Is Arizona turning blue?” is yes and no, Bentz said.
In certain areas of Maricopa County there was a big surge in Democratic votes in the Southeast and Northeast, Bentz said.
While some of those voted for Biden and Kelly, a number of them also voted for Republican state legislators, Bentz said.
“Arizona is more of red with blue spots, it’s sort of a Dr. Seuss character where we’re going to see the spots grow over time, but right now there’s still a lot of red in the state,” Bentz said.
Prop. 207 was approved by voters by 60.03 percent, according to unofficial election results from the Arizona Secretary of State’s 2020 Elections webpage.
Prop. 207 permits limited adult possession, use and cultivation of marijuana; bans smoking marijuana in public; imposes a 16% excise tax on marijuana sales to fund community colleges, infrastructure, public safety and public health programs; authorizes regulation of marijuana licensees; and allows expungement of various prior marijuana offenses.
“Prop. 207 passed fairly handily with 60 percent of the vote. Most of the early polling showed that and it held on there,” Bentz said.
“It is important to note that marijuana received more votes than anyone in this election,” Bentz said.
The Invest in Education Act Initiative, also known as Prop. 208, was approved by voters by 51.75 percent, according to unofficial election results from the Arizona Secretary of State’s 2020 Elections webpage.
Prop. 208 imposes a 3.5% individual income tax surcharge on taxable annual income above $250,000 per individual and $500,000 per couple. Additional funds are dedicated to public education; hiring and salary increases; career training and higher education pathway programs for high school students and the Arizona Teachers Academy.
“Prop. 208 passed with 51.75 percent of the vote. One of the things that I will note, though, is that I do think Prop. 208 had an impact on some of our other school issues,” Bentz said.
“We had less ballot issues this year than we did last year, which is really weird to have more on off-cycle elections than on-cycle elections, but the passage rate was lower,” Bentz said.
Pima County had a 100 percent passage rate for school bond and override elections this year, and Maricopa County had an 80 percent passage rate, Bentz said.
“In the rural parts of Arizona, where we saw a significant effort to turn out Republican voters and Trump voters, we actually saw a lower passage rates for school issues,” Bentz said. “Combined with the fact of the Trump effort to try to push Republicans, also with 208 on the ballot, I think had a suppressive effect on some of the school issues.”