Sunday, November 6, 2016

November 8 is about more than just the Oval Office

Decisions made November reach from the White House to your and my houses.

The bulk of this was written a year and a half ago. This election cycle has brought about caustic attitudes, and a very large number of people stating they simply would not vote this year. I have for the most part stayed out of any political discourse this season, but the following tweets from Leslie "Hacks4Pancakes" Carhart spurred me to update my post.

Even if you're fed u with presidential candidates, please vote local and for the next 10+ years of SCOTUS.

The current presidential election cycle has truly brought out the worst in this country. I've seen caustic arguments between friends and family members. Individuals in each camp call supporters of the other everything from foolish to evil (frequently in less kind terms). Over and over again I hear comments of "I can't vote for anyone but I surely have to vote against so-and-so" or "there's no one worth voting for so there's no use voting." Lost in the noise is that November 8 is about far more than just who will occupy the Oval Office for the next four years.

The soon-to-be President of the United States will appoint at least one Supreme Court justice (replacing Justice Antonin Scalia, who passed away this year). Given the ages of other currently-serving justices, he or she may well appoint as many as four. The current court is an evenly-balanced mix of justices who tend toward liberal and conservative; for the incoming President to replace four justices would put decided slant on the court, one way or the other.

Aside from the national implications of this election, there are state and local officials to elect, and in many cases local propositions to decide.

I am fortunate to live in a small community where my local and state representatives are more than just names on a ballot. They are people I see around town, people I may talk with on social media, people I may bump into at the grocery store, whose children are in class with my children. People that get out in the community and publicly recognize significant achievements:

Congratulations to Civil Air Patrol cadet Chuck Baker on his General Ira Eaker award.

This is not an endorsement for a particular candidate, but I do appreciate that he made a big deal out of a significant accomplishment for a cadet in Civil Air Patrol, an organization near and dear to my heart. More to my point though, I know my local representatives well enough to know we share the ideologies most important to me, and I can live with the areas where we disagree. As the actions of local representatives affect me personally and visibly, my vote has clear and tangible implications.

In May 2014, my local community voted on a few items that will have long-lasting effects for us as homeowners and residents, and for our children as they attend the local schools. On the ballot were two items, one with a three-year effect, and one that will be with us for decades. The shame is in how few took the time to make their voice heard.

The first ballot item was electing individuals to fill two open spots on the school board. These individuals will serve a three-year term and “have final control over all major decisions regarding school policy, curriculum, expenditures, and building programs. It is the Board’s responsibility to provide tax monies for maintenance and operation of the schools, to submit bond issues to the District’s voters for construction of school facilities, and to hire the Chief Executive Officer for the District. Board authority is defined by federal and state law and by regulations set by the State Board of Education. Trustees act officially only as a group in duly called and posted Board meetings.”

As important as this is, the second item has much more far-reaching implications. The second proposition asked voters to approve a $92 million dollar bond initiative. The proceeds from this bond would pay for a new elementary school, a new middle school, a multi-purpose competition stadium, a baseball and softball complex, maintenance improvements and repairs to several existing schools, and technology upgrades across the district. Based on home values in the district, the net effect would be on average about a $130 annual tax increase for up to forty years.

Of approximately 28,000 individuals (including nearly 5,500 students) living within the boundaries of the school district, a mere 2,860 voters made a decision affecting the rest for many years to come. According to unofficial results posted by the county election authorities, the bond passed by a vote of 1666 in favor, 1194 opposed.

I was in favor of the bond, and voted for it. Our elementary schools reached 100% of designed capacity last year – and still more students arrived this year. Our lone middle school will exceed capacity within 2 years. Our girls’ softball team plays on a field leased from the city. Ditto for the boys’ baseball team. The football team plays on an aging field located at the middle school. Technology ages and requires replacement every few years to stay current. 

With the exception of the elementary and middle schools to be constructed, none of this is absolutely required – but to not invest would be to relinquish the very thing that makes Dripping Springs such a desirable place to live. Many of us that live here came first for the exceptional school district, and only after we arrived did we discover the exceptional quality of life and the wonderful people. Dripping Springs consistently is ranked among the very best school districts in the state – consistently faring well in statewide academic competitions, among the highest in proportion of graduating seniors that continue on to advanced education, among the highest in statewide standardized testing. It is a fantastic place to raise a family, in large part because of the emphasis we place on investing in our children’s future.

All in all I was pleased with the election results. I know two of the individuals that were running for school board positions personally; one won a spot, while the other fell short by a mere nine votes. I am glad that we are investing in continued excellent education for my children, and for the children that will join the community in the years to come.

But that is beside the point. My point is that the decision to invest here and now was made by 1,666 voters. One school board position was decided by nine votes. You think your vote does not matter? I could fit enough people in my van to have changed the outcome of this election! When 1,666 voters can make a decision affecting 28,000, and that will affect our grandchildren, it’s not the system that is broken. It’s a sign that we as a community have become complacent, satisfied to just watch.

I have a number of friends in the community that were not in favor of the bond. I in no way mean to disparage them. We do have a relatively high property tax burden, and not everyone agrees with spending a quarter of the bond on athletic programs. Our differing views (shared civilly!) are what make us strong. The beauty of the democratic system is that we each get to voice our opinion.

This year, another two propositions are on the ballot. One is for a $106 million bond to improve law enforcement and emergency services, including building a larger jail and a larger 9-1-1 dispatch center to keep up with growing population. The second asks voters to approve $131 million for road and low water crossing improvements - an important consideration in a county subject to significant weather disasters. And like the bond election 18 months ago, this too affects property taxes in a county where increasing property values lead to increasing tax bills even with no change to the tax rate - a touchy subject.

I'll close by echoing the comment from Leslie that I opened with: even if you are fed up with the political bickering this year, bear in mind that the Supreme Court appointments made by the person who takes office in January will interpret US law for the next couple of decades, and that you likely have local issues far more immediately relevant to your day-to-day life. 

Do you have something to add? A question you'd like answered? Think I'm out of my mind? Join the conversation below, reach out by email at david (at), or hit me up on Twitter at @dnlongen