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Joint school boards meeting addresses sale tax referendum

Convincing members of the media to positively promote the sales tax referendum is the key to a successful vote, city and county school board members decided during a joint meeting June 20.
According to budget reports by Washington County Director of Schools Ron Dykes and Johnson City Superintendent Richard Bales, both systems are facing deficits of approximately $3 million that may require the schools to use their own fund balances to cover.
City Commissioner Ralph Van Brocklin said the city commission recently voted to designate all of the additional money received from the sales tax increase to education. Washington County already gives 100 percent of sales tax to the schools.
While the city commission made a commitment to restrict the additional dollars to education, they rejected the county’s request to split those extra dollars evenly between the school systems, which will result in Johnson City schools receiving approximately 70 percent of the revenue.
Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge said the more than $1 million that would come to the county schools from the increase in sales tax, 40 percent of which is paid from people outside the county, is still preferable to a property tax increase.
Dykes said he began promoting the referendum last summer by speaking to different groups, and Johnson City School Board member Jenny Brock asked what response he had received from the business community.
“They see the rationale behind it, I’ve heard nothing negative,” Dykes answered.
Johnson City Board of Education Chair Kathy Hall has also spoken to community groups, and premiered a powerpoint presentation that will be shared with others in the upcoming weeks.
Hall said the referendum would pass if all of the teachers voted in favor of the increase.
City Manager Pete Peterson asked why the boards of education and the school systems can’t take a position on the referendum. “I know you can’t spend public dollars to promote it,” he said, referring rather to a formal acknowledgement by the members.
Hall said the board could provide information to the employees, but not tell them to vote.
Neither board has considered paid advertising, and Bales said there it not enough time to do private fund raising to pay for a media campaign.
“Have you identified a target audience?” Peterson asked.
Hall said it’s the 2,500 people who vote in August, with an aim toward summer groups, civic groups, parent teacher associations, and educational associations. She said they are hesitant to send an email to the teachers.
Van Brocklin cautioned against approaching senior citizens because people on fixed incomes are the least likely to want a tax increase.
Possible legal implications in contacting churches also were discussed.
County Board Chair Clarence Mabe said a combination of parents and teachers holding signs at the voting sites would be the best combination, but fellow board member Keith Ervin reminded everyone of the limitations in approaching voters at the sites.
County Commissioner David Tomita asked about the possibility of having representatives at the sites for early voting, which begins Friday, July 13.
In the end, it was decided private meetings would be held with local print and broadcasting media to request all negative comments and editorials be stopped “before they became a self-fulfilling prophecy,” in the words of Van Brocklin.
A team of both mayors, both board chairs and the two superintendents will visit media members.
Seeing no need for another meeting to discuss strategy, the boards will regroup on Tuesday, July 17, two weeks before the vote.