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Pandemic suppressed turnout in Montevideo school referendum

A survey of residents in the Montevideo School District following the rejection of a bonding measure for a new elementary school found that the pandemic suppressed overall voter turnout in the referendum, and kept many young parents from the polls. Young parents were identified as most likely to support bonding.

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Voters kept their distance by waiting at orange cones in the Montevideo School District bond referendum on Tuesday afternoon. The Minnesota National Guard Training and Command Center served as the polling location, and provided ample room to maintain social distancing by voters. Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune

MONTEVIDEO — The COVID-19 pandemic played a role in the defeat of the bonding question in the April referendum conducted by the Montevideo School District , a survey conducted by ICS Consulting of Blaine for the district indicates.

The pandemic kept many young parents from the polls and suppressed overall voting numbers, the survey showed. Young parents were identified prior to the referendum as the most likely supporters of the bonding, and board members had hoped voter turnout would match that of past referendums.

Montevideo School Board members, at a special meeting on Monday, discussed the results of the survey. It was mailed to all households, and there were 466 ”valid” responses, according to information presented to the board members. They will resume discussions at their August meeting on whether to bring another referendum.

The survey found that 54 percent said they did not vote due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mike Hubbard and Pat Overom, consultants with ICS, told the board members. The referendum saw a voter turnout of 38 percent, or well below the turnout in previous referendums held by the district. There were 1,619 voters, in comparison to the expected turnout of 2,200 to 2,400 voters, they said.

Voters in the district rejected a $47.75 million bond request by a 872-to-744 vote on April 14. The funds would have been used to replace the Sanford Education Center and Ramsey Elementary School with a new elementary school and also remodel the Middle School. They also rejected a $13.22 million bond request by a 945-to-669 vote to develop a new performing arts center.

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Along with voter turnout, the pandemic also adversely affected voter perceptions, if indirectly so. Superintendent Luther Heller told board members that despite repeated attempts to inform voters that the district was not allowed to cancel the referendum by order of the governor, he continued to hear from people who did not understand that. It led to complaints by some that the district was attempting to “ramrod” the referendum through, he told board members during discussions at the special meeting.

Most important, the survey showed that voter turnout was lowest among those considered to be Gen X and millennials, or persons born after 1965 and 1980, respectively. People in their parenting years were identified prior to the referendum as most likely to support the bonding, the consultants noted.

In contrast, baby boomers and those older, whose children have grown, were disproportionately represented at the polls. While baby boomers, or those born between 1945 and 1965, represent 36 percent of the eligible voters, they accounted for 42 percent of the ballots cast. Those without school-age children were most likely to reject the bonding and vote more in tune with concerns about the financial impact on them, the consultants explained.

The survey had good news for school board members. It found that 87 percent supported the grade reconfiguration that the district had hoped to accomplish by building a new elementary school and remodeling the middle school. A full 83 percent of respondents also supported the safety and security improvements that were part of the board’s plans.

A significant majority, 74 percent, agreed that another bond referendum should be held May 2021 or sooner.

Despite the defeat in April, the school board has not lost its political capital with voters over facilities needs, Hubbard told board members.

In their discussions, board members said they have heard a variety of comments from residents as to the vote. Board members said they felt that a lack of a visual concept plan, something that voters could see, hurt the measure. There were also discussions that videos produced to explain the referendum and tax impact were too long and released too late.

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