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Board gears up for June 2013 voted leeway

Article Date: 
18 January, 2013 (All day)

The Morgan County School Board is gearing up for a June 2013 voted leeway.
They invited Christine Kearl, Governor Gary Herbert’s deputy education director, to share with them how she successfully passed both a voted leeway and bond while she was superintendent of schools in Rich County.  
Morgan Superintedent Ken Adams said Kearl is well respected by the governor, state legislature, state school board association, and state superintendent association.
“Her expertise will help us,” he said.
When Kearl became the superintendent in Rich County, she was handed a budget with only $60,000 in unreserved funds.  “We were in trouble,” she said.  “If we wanted to maintain programs and not go through a reduction in force, additional funds were needed.  The first thing I had to organize was a voted leeway.”
The voted leeway passed in Rich County in 2000, with a 70 percent approval rate.  Four years later, Rich passed a $5 million bond election with 80 percent approval.
“We must have done something right,” she said.    
When she left the position nine years ago, she left the budget with $2 million in unreserved funds.  Morgan has $150,000 in its unreserved funds, meant to repair buildings and/or equipment in the case of a major disaster or emergency.
“I left the district much better than I found it,” she said. 
Kearl shared her blueprint for a successful voted leeway with Morgan school board members and administrators last week.
First and foremost, she said, show how the leeway benefits students, not teachers and their jobs.
“Focus your whole campaign and approach on the kids,” she said.  “What are the consequences for the students?  We told people, “When you vote, you are making a statement about students.”
A leeway would be more successful if it benefits every school in the district rather than just one, she said.
She said the campaign to pass the leeway would “consume” the superintendent and business administrator’s time.  She encouraged all board members to be present at the multiple community meetings that would be necessary to inform the public.
“It starts with you,” she told the board.  “your leadership and commitment to this is critical.  All of you have to be on board.”
Kearl encouraged Morgan boardmembers to be transparent in their communications, and admit the reasons for the leeway.  Chief among those reasons is that the state is no longer covering expenses they once used to cover.  
She advised boardmembers to be clear about the consequences if the leeway doesn’t pass.
Without a voted leeway in Morgan, class sizes could rise to 32 in first grade classrooms, administrators said.
Without a leeway, more cuts could be imminent as well.  
Kearl said in Rich County’s sake, administrators had to be willing to make tough choices.  She said her district was willing to take “bold moves” such as contracting out custodial services and eliminating bus routes to save the district money.
Her process took a year, while Morgan only has six months.  Kearl said it is possible in that time frame, but not without a lot of work.
“You have to work it,” she said.  “You have to demonstrate your commitment to the kids and how important it is we get the community on board.  The more meetings, the better.”
While such meetings are usually a magnet for dissenters, Kearl said it is important to “recruit” supporters to attend meetings and speak up about their opinions.
It is helpful to supply speaking points and factual data to administrators, school teachers, and staff that they can draw from when speaking with people in the community, Kearl said.
She encouraged using principals, teachers and staff as advocates and “cheerleaders” in the community.
“It really becomes a team effort.  You want your teachers and support staff anytime they run into someone in the community to get people on board,” she said.  “You want them to be speaking positively about it.”
The “secret weapon” was crunching the numbers to discover how many voters each teacher or staff member should get to support the leeway, Kearl said.
“I gave them the assignment to get four voters.  Everyone knew their assignment.  If our staff would follow through and get their four, there was no way it wasn’t going to pass,” Kearl said.  “It was an excellent strategy.  It worked beautifully, magically.”
But things didn’t always run smoothly, Kearl warned Morgan’s school board.
She endured heated presentations, especially with secondary homeowners in Garden City.
“They yelled at us in our truth in taxation meetings,” she said.  “We let them vent and yell at us.”
She also had to endure some scathing letters to the editor and “ugly attacks” in local newspapers.
“Our task is large ahead of us,” admitted Morgan Boardmember Bruce Galbraith.  “But it is one we are willing to tackle.
Kearl said she is optimistic about Morgan’s chances of passing a voted leeway.
“You can convince the homeowners here.  They will get behind you,” she said.  “Just do your homework.  You can do this.  There is no question in my mind.”