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Baldwin community votes ‘no’ on $158 million school bond referendum

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Baldwin School District residents voted down the district’s $158 million capital improvements bond referendum on Oct. 1. At a school board meeting, trustees accepted the results of the vote: 874 “yes” votes and 1,046 “no” votes.

The referendum, titled Innovation 2020, was originally scheduled for March, but the coronavirus pandemic caused school officials to postpone it.

The bond would have helped fund a multi-year capital improvement plan, for which school officials have been collecting input from the community over the past four years. The proposed projects, which included renovating decades-old facilities, would have also been funded by grants, state funds and the regular school district budget.

“The people spoke to a sense of reality of the current economic condition,” said Jeff Barkan, co-president of the South Baldwin Jewish Center. “We all have wish lists. I know I want to upgrade my house and make it the most attractive on my block, but I also know that it functions perfectly as it is with basic repairs and upgrades to systems as needed. My point is that there is a balance between what you want and what you need, as well as what you can afford.”

The community, he said, could not have afforded the bond.

“I believe and speak for quite a few other residents that a scaled-down proposal that addressed most of the necessary repairs and upgrades and included a few items from the wish lists would have passed overwhelmingly,” Barkan said, adding that the school board “basically got the community telling them that they’re not getting their way this time.”

Many residents took to social media to share their reactions and concerns. Some were disappointed that the bond referendum was voted down, and some said they thought the timing of the vote was inappropriate, given that the Covid-19 pandemic has left many struggling financially because they have lost work.

“When our property value declines because schools are outdated, old and falling apart, I want everyone to keep this same energy. Honestly speaking, what else are our tax [dollars] paying for in Baldwin? Downtown?” Mekale Jackson wrote on Facebook, adding that the downtown business district has seen no progress, and property taxes were raised while residents saw no extra benefits.

“So now we had the opportunity to receive millions of dollars in grants and our community voted no?” Jackson wrote. “In the short term, the residents save $500 a year. In the long term, you lose out on a healthy prosperous neighborhood, increased resale value of your house, attraction of new families, companies, new jobs, state-of-the-art schools. I’m disappointed.”

School officials had worked with architects and consultants to review the assessed values of all the homes in Baldwin and determined that homeowners would have paid an average of $27.81 per month, or $333 per year, for the 20-year bond.

“I think it was timing why people voted no,” Letia Cooper Petty wrote on Facebook in response to Jackson. “There are people who have [lost] their jobs due to Covid and are already worried about where their next mortgage/tax money is coming from. I honestly believe if this was [the] past year, the vote would’ve been yes.”

The Baldwin Board of Education issued a statement: 

“After the cancellation of the Innovation 2020 bond vote in March due to the pandemic, the board was approached by countless community members to reschedule the referendum. When we did so on October 1, fewer than 900 voted to support the initiative.

For those who have suggested that a ‘pared down’ version could be more successful, we disagree. Since 2016 we have been collecting input from citizens, using a variety of methods and platforms. The highest priority from parents was air conditioning and it is the most costly part of the bond. Do we air condition only the elementary schools? A big ask from elementary school parents was cafeterias. Do we fund cafeterias for two schools and ask the others to wait?

Some of our most vocal parents are those of students in the music and arts programs, as well as in athletics. Do we ignore the interests of those families?

In large projects, trimming around the edges does not save much, and often disregards whole groups of engaged parents. The community has spoken. From our perspective, the message was less about opposition and more about disinterest.

The board and district administrators have invested enormous amounts of time and effort in educating the voters about the advantages of the Innovation 2020 bond. If the community wishes us to revisit this project, we would need assurance of widespread support.”