SADOW: Voters Punish Bossier Schools Leadership

That two tax propositions got crushed in Bossier Parish over the weekend tells us multiple factors caused such a stinging defeat.

The two measures featured in Louisiana local elections this past weekend, along with next-door Caddo renewing a property tax to underwrite bonds for school facilities, an Orleans Parish item that rededicated and redistributed existing property taxes among city and nonprofit recreation facilities, and one that in Jefferson Parish added a new property tax for educator salaries. Those all passed handily almost three-to-one, the exact opposite of the items in Bossier.

However, the Jefferson increase paled in comparison to the one for pay in Bossier, being about a third as large (the ones in Caddo and Orleans were of similar size). The Bossier request of nearly 24 mills would have increase school property taxes by 40 percent and would have made those paid by Bossierites 16 percent higher than the next highest in the state, top-ranked Zachary Community (Bossier Parish schools, by contrast, barely crack the top 20 in performance).

The Caddo, Jefferson, and Orleans measures attracted from about 7.9 to 11.6 percent turnout. But Bossier voters ran to the polls in record numbers, with the pay measure and the other, which at about one-tenth the size of the salary one, dealt with technology infrastructure attracted over a third of registered voters. To put that in perspective, the special general election in 2018 for secretary of state, with congressional elections also on the ballot, drew about 50 percent higher but the ensuing runoff pulled in barely more than a third of 2019’s total.

Such tremendous turnout came amid an intense bout of campaigning. Naturally, school employees wanting to enrich their pay stumped for the salary measure. In fact, the total affirmative vote exceeded by half again the entire votes cast in the last parish-wide measure, a small property tax proposition for the independent Caddo-Bossier Port Commission in 2016.

But two independent groups emerged to launch massive campaigns against the tax hike. Beginning with the early voting period, they blanketed the parish with mailouts, Internet ads, and text messages, and it paid off with the amounts of votes against both double that of all the votes recorded in the 2018 runoff.

No doubt that asking to jack up school property taxes to the range of 91 mills – which would have cost some businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars extra in annual taxes and the typical homeowner $232 more yearly – turned off some. And the fact that educator salaries ranked 45th among the state’s 69 districts as per pupil dollars received from the state were also 45th but local tax revenues already were 27th highest signaled to voters some money was there for pay increases yet the School Board chose different priorities. But the magnitude of the defeat, and that it extended to the much smaller technology measure as well, indicates more to it than just pecuniary matters.

Likely some voters were miffed at the imbroglio over the district’s superintendent job. Earlier this year, the former holder Scott Smith abruptly resigned under federal investigation for abuse of prescription drugs received through the mail. That probe remains ongoing, although the state authority on the matter, District Attorney Schuyler Marvin, has declined to pursue any state charges if applicable.

Smith, the husband of former superintendent and state official Jane Smith, faced a number of contentious issues in his nearly three years at the helm that kept the district roiled. Lawsuits about religious content in instruction, compounded by an ill-fated attempt by state Sen. Ryan Gatti to change state law that could have invited more legal action against the district, a legal challenge by Gatti involving branding of football field turf that could have brought the same, and handling of student protests of the National Anthem literally led, by his own admission, to Smith popping pills.

Additionally, federal authorities indicted School Board member Mike Mosura last year over accusations that he illegally distributed pills; he has yet to come to trial. Finally, the Board’s enthusiasm to launch the increases, just before Smith’s resignation, when a sales tax hike seemed more palatable also seemed to annoy opponents.

In short, the rejection may have come as much over lack of confidence in school leadership, from the Board on down, as over the financial hit. Keep in mind the Jefferson success came after a failed attempt in 2017, after which its School Board headed in a new direction by hiring former De Soto Parish School District’s former superintendent Cade Brumley who has boosted citizens’ favorable perception of the district’s plans to improve that included putting existing resources into a pay raise. Like Bossier, Jefferson had paid the lowest in its area.

Maybe Bossier’s could have succeeded if it had also committed monies already raised with much lower hikes, and/or in the form of sales rather than property taxes. But its unsteady leadership may have made any success impossible, so it must act to instill confidence in it in voter’s eyes before it tries again.

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