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Voters say no by nearly 2-1 margin

6/29/2014

By JUDY SHERARD

By JUDY SHERARD

jsherard@dailynews.net

Hays USD 489 voters soundly defeated the 1-percent increase in the USD 489 local-option budget Friday.

With a 38-percent voter turnout for the mail-ballot election, the margin was almost two to one against.

Unofficial results were 3,425-1,794 against the increase, and two ballots were returned unmarked, Ellis County Clerk Donna MasKus said.

There were 19 provisional ballots, she said.

The Ellis County Commission has called a special meeting for 10 a.m. Monday for canvassing the ballots, which makes the results official.

Board vice president James Leiker and board member Lance Bickle were at the Ellis County Courthouse for the final results.

Leiker said he hoped for a different result but wasn't too surprised based on the comments he had heard.

"I'm a little disappointed," he said.

"It's unfortunate," Bickle said. "Obviously we wanted to see it pass, but we're going to have to work with what we have and continue to try to find other efficiencies and ways that we can save money and try to move forward."

Hays-NEA supported the LOB increase.

"I was surprised that (the vote) wasn't closer," said Kim Schneweis, Hays-NEA president.

Leiker said he was a little shocked at the 38-percent turnout.

"I figured it would be a little higher, especially with the mail-in ballot," she said.

Schneweis said she was "disappointed in the number of people who chose not to vote. I expected a close vote."

Maskus also was hoping for a better turnout.

The last mail-ballot election was a county sales tax question in 1997, which had a 77-percent voter turnout.

A total of 13,642 ballots were mailed to active qualified voters June 10. Voters had until noon Friday to return the ballots.

Ballots were returned by mail and hand-delivered to the Ellis County Clerk's office right up to the deadline, with one hand delivered at 11:59 a.m., Maskus said.

Voters were required to mark the ballot and sign in the marked space and list their addresses on the envelope before returning the ballot, she said.

When the ballots were returned to the clerk's office, the signatures were checked before the ballot was placed in the ballot box.

Promptly at noon, the first ballot box was unlocked, and the counting process for the 5,221 ballots accepted by the clerk's office began. As many as five Ellis County employees worked through the afternoon slitting open the envelopes containing the ballots.

The ballots were separated from the envelopes by one person, and another opened them, so the person opening the ballots didn't see the signature on the envelope.

"The secrecy of the voter is utmost in the process," Maskus said.

Two other clerk's office staff members tallied the votes in an adjoining room.

"They watch each other (count) to double verify one another," Maskus said. "We have to have accountability on every ballot."

Counting went quickly; opening envelopes and sorting the ballots took more time.

The county has a machine for opening envelopes and a vote-counting machine, but Maskus opted not to use either because of cost. Hand counting required some overtime, but was cheaper than the ballot counter.

It would have required larger envelopes, increased postage and a cost to program the machine, she said.

Total costs haven't been tabulated, but USD 489 Superintendent Dean Katt previously had estimated the cost to the school district at $20,000. The money likely will come from the general or supplemental funds.

If the 1-percent increase had passed, the state school finance law included a provision that would allow the board to vote to raise the LOB to 33 percent for one year before being approved by the voters.

Consensus of the board was to add that increase if voters approved the 1 percent.

The board also said reducing class sizes was a priority, and any increase approved by voters should be used for that.

"It would have definitely helped out the kindergarten classrooms with the class sizes," Leiker said of the 1-percent LOB increase.

Money from the additional 2 percent might have been used for contingency reserves.

A 3-percent increase in the LOB would have added $594,525 to the district budget.

Leiker thanked voters for sending ballots back in, "even though it didn't turn out in the favor that I guess the school district wanted to hire those teachers back and cut those fees. We will continue to work and really see where we do come with the budget."