By Nathaniel Smith • The Times-Independent
Every vote matters, or when it comes to petitions, every signature.
The Grand County Board of Education was reminded of that fact when the petition challenging its method of funding the construction of a new middle school missed the threshold by a mere 10 signatures.
On Monday, Dec. 3, the board held a special session to announce the results of the petition. According to Superintendent JT Stroder, petitioners needed to collect 1,095 valid signatures in order to pass, and it received 1,085.
Based on Utah law, a successful petition must garner signatures from at least 20 percent of active voters. An inactive voter is a person who is registered and eligible to vote but has not participated in the last two regular general elections, according to the State of Utah’s election website. Stroder said the Grand County School District has 5,208 active voters in Grand County, plus 266 from San Juan County, resulting in a total of 5,474, 20 percent of which equals 1,095.
Stroder said Grand County Clerk Diana Carroll verified that 1,085 of the names on the document were legal signatures. “Based on that, I think you have to declare that they did not meet the 20 percent that they had to meet,” he said. He did not confirm how many signatures the clerk did not validate.
Tom Lacy, one of the petition’s sponsors, told The Times-Independent that he spoke with Carroll on Thursday, Nov. 29. During their conversation, Lacy said that Carroll told him the threshold for the petition to pass was 1,076. He noted that Carroll had given him that lower threshold from the petition’s inception. Lacy also mentioned that Carroll said the petition collected 1,085 valid signatures. When the Times-Independent reached out to the clerk’s office, Carroll was out of town and unavailable for comment.
“The fact that so many people signed in such a short period of time seems to indicate that people want a chance to vote on this,” Lacy said. Lacy also expressed his frustration about the lack of transparency, “They have gone out of the way to keep the public out of this,” he said.
The petition arose in response to the board’s decision to finance construction of a new middle school using a Local Building Authority rather than a General Obligation bond. Since voters do not approve the LBA method, it has an interest rate that is half of one percent higher than a GO bond. Board members argued that they could save money by locking in the interest rate now because the rate is likely to rise next year. The LBA also allows the project to begin in the spring, which the board says is beneficial because construction costs also are likely to increase.
Furthermore, the board claimed that because it was frugal and has saved money in its capital fund for years, it would not have to raise taxes to fund the construction project. “There would be no tax increase because the board was conscious of tax rate management and created a future building fund in the capital fund to capture growth and assessments,” wrote Board Chair Melissa Byrd in an email to The Times-Independent.
Sponsors of the petition were skeptical of the board’s motivation and said the issue should have been put before voters. One of the petition’s major proponents, Dwight Johnston, thought the board was afraid voters would not approve a GO bond, so a different method was chosen. The petition was not about whether a new school should be built, but was rather framed as a voters’ rights issue. The LBA method has gained acceptance over the past decade, with more than 30 Utah school districts using it to fund capital projects.
During the board’s special session on Monday, Stroder questioned the validity of the way in which the petition’s signatures were collected. In the run up to the deadline, which was moved back to Monday, Nov. 26, copies of the petition were reportedly left at numerous businesses around Moab.
“There is some question in our mind about the legality of some of the collections that were counted as valid,” Stroder said at the special meeting. Board Member Britnie Ellis questioned the legality of leaving the petition on counters in local businesses, because there was supposed to be someone watching each person sign. In the end, Stroder acknowledged it was “a moot point” since the petitioners did not reach the threshold.
Following the special meeting, Stroder said construction of the new middle school would proceed as planned, using an LBA as the funding method.