Three different things were going on in the recent statewide school elections results for 2021, said Randie Stein, managing director of Stifel, Nicolaus & Co., Inc.
“On the M&O side for 2021, 23 questions, 16 of them passed, seven of them failed, and the pass percent was 70 percent. That’s right on par with what we’ve seen historically with the M&O side,” Stein said at the Arizona Association of School Business Officials bi-monthly meeting today in Glendale.
“On the DAA side, the pass percentage – 80% this year – is far exceeding that historical average of 59%,” Stein said. “On the bonds side, only six questions, and you’ll see that’s historically quite low. Only 50% of those questions passed whereas historically going back 2020 and prior, it’s an average of 84%,” Stein said.
Schools and education issues will remain a key focus in the 2022 elections, especially among the Republican electorate, said HighGround Inc.‘s Paul Bentz during the same event.
“Don’t think we are an exception to it,” Bentz said pointing to a chart of 2021 school bond and override elections. “Every single one of these elections that failed is from a dark red or conservatively Republican leaning area.”
Remember that “only 30% of likely voters actually have kids under the age of 18 at home with them, and it’s even lower among the likely Republican voters,” Bentz said.
“It’s not their experience in your school. It’s not their experience in your community. It’s their experience they are getting from the national news. It’s their experience they are getting from what they think is happening. It’s their experience of what Tucker Carlson is telling them is happening in our schools. It is the boogeyman that is critical race theory. It is the cancel culture. It’s all that and they are going to make it an issue for 2022,” Bentz said.
That’s why messaging will be so critically important for education issues, school board candidates and school bond and overrides in the 2022 elections, Bentz said.
“Talking about what you are doing and what you are teaching and what your districts are about is going to be more important than talking about what you’re not,” Bentz said.
See what more Bentz has to say about the 2022 elections below after Stein’s analysis of these elections.
Stein said she’s wondering if we are “in an era that BC now means Before COVID, and 2020 and beyond is the new AD or AP as in After Pandemic.”
School district elections can be impacted by the economy and community support, Stein said.
“It’s very local. It’s very specific. I feel like there are issues out there with political divisiveness and community divisiveness and not that it’s right or left,” Stein said.
Election Day: See how voters decided on school bonds & overrides
“It causes a kind of yuck in the air, and I don’t know if that makes people fatigued, it makes people not want to vote, it makes people not interested, but I think it’s reflective in the outcome that we saw in 2021,” Stein said.
Future economic uncertainty also plays a role, Stein said.
“We’ve been talking about how unbelievable state revenues are, but I think we’re all kind of pinching ourselves like why is that?” Stein said. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic and now we’re facing fears of inflation, the labor force participation is particularly low, and we’re also recognizing that the federal stimulus that has been coming out to the country is dwindling.”
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Maintenance & operations override election results
In Arizona, 93 school districts have current maintenance and operations overrides, Stein said, noting that Amphitheatre School District in Pima County has both an M&O and a special purpose override, and another school district has a small school override.
Stein said she’d expect to see 19 to 24 maintenance and operations override questions every year.
“On the district additional assistance side, I’m seeing 27 school districts with current DAA overrides,” Stein said. “Interestingly, 26 of those also have M&O overrides.”
Crane School District is the only district in the state that has a DAA override, but not an M&O override, Stein said. About 11% to 12% of school districts in the state have both of those types of overrides, Stein said.
“Again if we’re just seeing maintenance of what’s going on, I’d expect to see four or so (DAA) ballot questions every year,” Stein said.
What we’re seeing now for overrides isn’t too bad, especially when the low point in 2011 and 2012 was clearly impacted by the economy, Stein said.
Right now, the preponderance of M&O overrides are early continue, followed by continue, then increase, Stein said.
“We really have a much greater interest these days in the early continue to get school districts two bites at going out for that question, so if one (attempt) is not successful there is no phasing (out) that’s happening,” Stein said.
“What’s really notable is that this is the first year that there was no new question on the ballot,” Stein said.
Stein said she thought there might have expected a few more M&O override questions on the ballot this year since seven 2020 M&O overrides failed.
“Three of them were back on the ballot in 2021. All three of them were unsuccessful,” Stein said, noting all three unsuccessful questions were all grouped in southwest Maricopa County.
DAA override elections results
The district additional assistance or capital overrides did well this year like they have each year since 2015, Stein said.
There were three continuations, one new and one increase in 2021, Stein said.
“Every year it’s really just a handful of questions,” Stein said. “But since 2015, 31 of 34 questions have passed – 91%.”
Prior to 2021, the two DAAs that failed were new asks, but in 2021, the DAA that failed was a continuation, Stein said.
Bond elections results
There’s plenty of data about what’s going on in bond elections, Stein said.
“2021 was not a good year (for bonds),” Stein said. “The question pass rate was low 50%, the approval percent was low at 31% and the number of questions was low.”
“The question pass rate that 50% being higher than the approved amount rate at 30% means that the failed questions were on the larger dollar size,” Stein said.
The average bond amount being requested is edging up, Stein said.
“2021 is sort of a whole new level on the average request amount,” Stein said. “I’m not putting a lot of stock in that because there were very few questions on the ballot – only six class B bond elections.”
School bond elections had historically strong approval rates from 2015 through 2019, Stein said.
“The combined request during those five years was $5.8 billion and the amount approved was $4.6 billion,” Stein said. “The requested amount each year was over $1.1 billion and there were 17 questions on average each year with the average request at $68 million. It was just intense from 2015 to 2019.”
“2021 was the lowest number of (bond) questions in Stifel’s recorded history,” Stein said. “The amount requested is down, you have to look back to 2013 to see anything else.”
“The average request again is high, but really just a function of so few school districts putting bond questions on the ballot,” Stein said.
“The pass rate for (bond) questions is extremely low but similar to what we saw in 2020,” Stein said. “These two years – 2020 and 2021 – have not been good years for school district bond elections.”
“We can certainly see that (school) districts were pretty gun shy going to the ballot,” Stein said. “You have to make your decision to go to the ballot for sure in the June or July timeframe, and if you can think back to what the world felt like then.”
“In 2022, you’re facing all those people on the ballot and what that means for bringing out other voters as well as some of the questions that we already know of that will be facing Arizona voters and the ones that they may come up with in the next couple of months,” Stein said.
School districts with two questions on the ballot
Some school districts put two questions on the ballot, Stein said.
“The first one – Window Rock – and Window Rock had an Impact Aid revenue bond question so not a class B Bond question it’s a slightly different beast,” Stein said. “By the way, those bonds are paid back so it is a separate category.”
Voters approved both those measures by over 80 percent, Stein said.
Fountain Hills Unified School District also had two questions – an M&O override which was successful and a DAA which was not, Stein said.
Voters in Phoenix Union and Roosevelt Elementary approved M&O and DAA overrides with very strong yes percentages, Stein noted.
Tolleson Union High School District has had a question on the ballot for the past five years and they’ve all been approved by voters, Stein said.
“It wasn’t too many years ago that Maricopa County had a full sweep on school district elections. Every single question in Maricopa County passed,” Stein said. “Well, today, I think we have to give the recognition to the 14 other counties. The pass rate in the other 14 counties was at 83% whereas Maricopa in 2021 left us at 64%.”
Stein said that although the elections ended eight days ago, “If you’re contemplating (a school election in) 2022, we always recommend do not push off your contemplation.”
“It’s not too soon to start thinking about it. Certainly, by the first of the year you should be organized yourselves if you’re going to have an M&O or a DAA question certainly if you’re going to have a bond question there’s a lot to do and particularly with the political climate you want to have a strategy,” Stein said. “There’s a lot to do.”
What to expect in next year’s elections
The turnout for the 2022 elections is expected to be lower than it was in 2020, because the presidential election does not lead the ballot, said Paul Bentz, senior vice president of research and strategies for HighGround Inc. at the same event on Wednesday.
The second highest number of Arizonans turned out to vote in the 2020 elections in Arizona – 79.9% – the highest was in 1980 at 80.1%, but a much smaller number of voters took part in the 2021 elections, Bentz said.
“The turnout that we just saw last Tuesday was significantly lower than that. The turnout was about 21% in Maricopa County and that’s who decided all our school bonds and overrides,” Bentz said.
In Arizona, 4.8 million adults are registered to vote, Bentz said.
“Only about 76% of adults eligible to vote are registered to vote,” Bentz said. “Only 61% of the adult population voted in our absolute high, record, exponential turnout that we saw,” Bentz said.
In 2018, the blue wave election only 49% of our adult population voted and in the general primary only 25% of the adult population voted, Bentz said.
“Right now, we’re anticipating voter turnout in about the 60% range, which is 60% of registered voters, which means it’s about 50% of all adults so about half the adult population will vote in the 2022 election,” Bentz said. “It might be a little higher than that.”
Historically, midterm elections typically favor Republicans, Bentz said.
While there’s a lot of talk about whether Arizona is a red state or a blue state, “Arizona is more of a red state with purple spots,” Bentz said.
Republican turnout in 2018 with the blue wave was plus 7, Bentz said.
“2020 is a rare example in that for the first time in state history Democrats turned in more ballots prior to election day than Republicans,” Bentz said. “Early voting for years and years and years was a very Republican affair. For the first time in 2020 we actually saw more Democrats return early ballots than Republicans.”
“We saw that trend continue in these off-cycle elections where Republican turnout was down,” Bentz said. “Basically, the former president has influenced Republican voting behavior and has created skepticism with early voting and there’s a significant proportion of Republicans who’d ban all early voting if they could based on the 2020 election results.”
“That is not a majority of the electorate, and most folks still want early voting, but that portion does impact Republican behavior,” Bentz said.
Taking into account the increase in Democratic participation and everything we have seen to this date, the baseline anticipation is that the election in 2022 “will be a plus 8 Republican turnout and it might be higher than that,” Bentz said.
“It is not an even contest with Democrats and Republicans going into this thing. Most races in our state will be a plus 8 or more Republican advantage,” Bentz said.
Arizona remains mostly red, but there are communities and areas that are turning blue, Bentz said and he pointed to a map of Maricopa County.
“You can see in the Southeast Valley and in some of the Loop 101 corridor – the high wage, high tech corridor – a significant shift of that electorate,” Bentz said. “That is what has generated the change in our Legislature, why our Legislature 10 years ago was a super majority of Republicans in both chambers to a one Republican advantage in both seats. That has to do with the shift among these swing districts. Pay attention to those areas and where those areas are going when it comes to redistricting.”
Those areas and where they end up in our districts will make a huge difference in where our Legislature goes for the next 10 years, Bentz said.
“As much as we’re seeing a shift towards blue in some of those high wage, high tech corridors in the suburbs, in the rural areas in Arizona those areas are getting reader,” Bentz said. “We are in fact a microcosm of the country.”
Right now, we’re calling 2022 The Year of the Independent, Bentz said.
“Independent and unaffiliated voters will make up more than a third of the actual registered voters, but they significantly underparticipate in our elections,” Bentz said.
Independent and unaffiliated voters will be about 24% of voters in this midterm elections, “but they make a huge impact on the outcome of the election because no party can win statewide office without the help of independent and unaffiliated voters,” Bentz said. “That 24% and where they’re going and where they lean on issues will be critically important moving forward.”
“For example, a majority of independent and unaffiliated voters oppose the flat tax,” Bentz said. “A majority of independent and unaffiliated voters oppose the mask mandate ban.”
“Local control for schools is something that is important to independent and unaffiliated voters,” Bentz said.
On some issues independents are more democratically leaning, but that is not always true so that’s something to bear in mind as you follow these elections, Bentz said.
“What we saw last Tuesday is there’s a shift going on in the Republican electorate and that intensity in the midterm when another party takes over the White House generally the party of the opposite makes major gains in the midterm,” Bentz said.
“The intensity is surrounded by schools and surrounded by education. Republicans are successfully shifting from a narrative around Trump to a narrative about schools,” Bentz said. “That’s something we all need to be mindful about as we go through this election.”
“Don’t think we are an exception to it,” Bentz said pointing to a map and chart of 2021 school bond and override elections. “Every single one of these elections that failed is from a dark red or conservatively Republican leaning area.”
“If you are in a red area with a heavily senior population or a heavily Republican population, you should take note that 2022 needs to be an all-hands on deck experience, because what Republicans are doing is they’re trying to shift the narrative to talking about that concerned parents are not terrorists. We are not co-parenting with the government.”
“Only 30% of likely voters actually have kids under the age of 18 at home with them, and it’s even lower among the likely Republican voters,” Bentz said. “It’s not their experience in your school. It’s not their experience in your community.”
“It’s their experience they are getting from the national news. It’s their experience they are getting from what they think is happening. It’s their experience of what Tucker Carlson is telling them is happening in our schools. It is the boogeyman that is critical race theory. It is the cancel culture. It’s all that and they are going to make it an issue for 2022,” Bentz said.
Bentz said he did polling for several of the school districts in conservative leaning areas, and “I can tell you a lot of them basically were splitting Republicans. You can win a race in a heavily Republican district if you split Republicans and run up the score with everybody else.”
“Since April, May and June, since there’s been this intensity turn to that what we basically saw is that those communities started losing Republicans two to one or more and that’s why these issues went down narrowly in a low turnout of 21% of voters,” Bentz said.
“That’s what we’re up against. 2022 won’t be 21% (voter turnout), it will be three times that about 50% turnout, with more younger, Democratic, independent and unaffiliated voters, but every Republican vote is going to be essential in this race, because you can’t lose them two to one or three to one if you’re in a Republican leaning community,” Bentz said.
“That’s what you’re up against so message discipline is going to be very important,” Bentz said.
There are a number of issues facing education as we move forward, Bentz said.
“Number One is the expenditure limit,” Bentz said. “That’s going to be a huge problem that needs to be solved by March. That is a crisis and we need to treat it as such, because without the exemption to the expenditure limit being passed $1.2 million that are meant for your schools will not make it there. Getting our Legislature to understand that in short order is going to be very important.”
“What you’re going to be up against is that education is the stand in right now for the cultural war, for the issues that Republicans feel they’re being canceled on,” Bentz said. “It’s not just you, but you’re an easy stand in for it.”
“Number Three, next year’s negative impact on challenging the ban on mask mandates. You guys were absolutely right to challenge the mask mandate ban and you were absolutely victorious in the Supreme Court, but don’t think that does not come without consequences,” Bentz said.
“There will be some individuals at the Legislature next year that are going to want to make your life difficult, and you’re going to have to battle things like the mask mandate ban and other legislation – I know Wendy Rogers is already queued up on several of these things – that you’re going to be up against next year,” Bentz said. “Just because this session was hard, don’t think that next year’s session is going to be any easier.”
Increased attention on school boards and elections will be another issue, Bentz said.
“They will go after trying to get school board candidates and other individuals who will want to start trouble onto your school boards,” Bentz said. “Being mindful of that, knowing that it’s going to happen lets you address it sooner than later.”
The continuing teacher shortage remains a concern, and people believe that education continues to be underfunded, Bentz said.
“The challenge to Prop. 208 and the referring of the flat tax to the ballot will be another issue that we are dealing with,” Bentz said.
There is a significant amount of pessimism in the electorate right now, Bentz said.
“As we go through this, whether it is COVID and the hangover over that or the environment and the talk about the conflicts associated with that, when we talk about school issues, we are in a pessimistic environment and the majority of the electorate thinks that the country and the state are heading in the wrong direction,” Bentz said.
“In addition to that, schools are being a stand in right now for the cultural conflict and it will be pushed even further by the fact that we are going to have some pretty significant primaries,” Bentz said.
Message discipline is going to be essential for all school districts as we go into the 2022 election, Bentz said.
“Talking about what you are doing and what you are teaching and what your districts are about is going to be more important than talking about what you’re not,” Bentz said.
“It’s not enough to say we don’t teach critical race theory, you need to say this is what we are teaching,” Bentz said.
“Reminding people that we do have a constitution in every classroom, we do say the Pledge of Allegiance, we are requiring civics in our classroom,” Bentz said. “We are operating an all American education. This is awesome stuff you are doing in your schools. Take the time to talk about what you’re doing, not just defending about what you’re against.”
“Emphasize what you’re doing to communicate with parents, involve parents and recognize that most – 70% of voters – will not likely have kids in your classroom, so getting outside parental communications to the public about what you’re doing is going to be essential to making sure voters understand what you’re doing,” Bentz said.
“And finally, pay attention to those independent and unaffiliated voters. They are going to be critical in 2022 and beyond,” Bentz said.