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Voters say No to district's levy question

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As election night wore on the mood at the District 196 office slumped steadily from cautious optimism to weary resignation.

By the time the poll numbers stopped updating around 10:30, district employees and board members had accepted the fact voters had rejected a proposed 10-year, $150 million operating levy the district said was necessary to at least lessen the impact of budget cuts. As of midnight Tuesday, there were 27,833 votes against the levy (53.5 percent) and 24,227 in favor (46.5 percent).

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Even with a successful levy the district expected to cut about $3 million from its budget next year. Without the additional money the district could cut $23 million, depending on decisions about state education funding in next year's legislative session.

There was little organized opposition to this levy. Someone posted some "Vote No" signs around the district, but they were few and far between.

District employees who gathered Tuesday to watch the results come in talked several times about doing the right thing by allowing voters to make a choice about whether to increase their taxes. In the weeks leading up to the election superintendent Jane Berenz spoke several times to community groups and district volunteers made tens of thousands of phone calls to spread the word about the vote.

"It's disappointing, but it was always up to the community," Berenz said Tuesday night. "I think people voted with information. I don't think there was a lot of misinformation out there. I think these times are financially tough for families."

Things could get tough for the district, too. Next year's cuts will come on top of $25 million in adjustments made over the past two budget cycles. Cuts made earlier this year included 143.7 staff positions, and the district has projected as many as 200 more lost jobs.

Board chair Jackie Magnuson said the trick now will be to cut in a way that doesn't damage the quality of education in the district.

"There's so much to be proud of that we don't want to lose stuff," she said.

Tuesday's results will not be official until the school board accepts them at its Nov. 8 meeting. Berenz said the district will not jump right away into discussions about budget cuts. Some of those decisions will depend on what happened in the rest of Tuesday's elections, and Berenz planned to watch those results closely.

In the meantime, she believes district employees will go to bed disappointed but get up ready to work hard with what they've got.

"You look at the reality of what your resources are," Berenz said. "You look at your priorities and you make the best decisions for the children."

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