The fact that School District 2 voters retained incumbent trustees Tuesday but defeated district levies left the county's top election official scratching his head Wednesday.
"To me, it's a mixed message," said Yellowstone County Election Administrator Duane Winslow. "You bring back two incumbents — that generally says I'm pleased with how the board is going — but then you vote down the levies."
The turnout in Tuesday's election, 15,276 people, or 22 percent of eligible voters, was about the same as the past two years, he said. Different this year was the number of ballots that were rejected because district voters selected too many candidates.
"We had over 1,300 ballots that were over-voted in that race," Winslow said. "In one out of every nine ballots, people voted wrong in the trustee race."
One reason for the confusion may have been the campaign by a political action group that endorsed three candidates, Michael Burke, Ken Peterson and Jerry Wilson. Voters may have assumed all three were running for the same seats. In fact, Burke and Peterson were two of seven candidates running for two elementary seats, and Wilson was one of two candidates running for one high school seat.
On top of that, the ballot directed voters to pick two candidates for three-year terms. The three on the ballot also might have been confusing, Winslow said.
"Most of the (rejected) ballots, as I looked through, had Burke, Peterson and someone else"
Winslow figures voters remembered Burke's and Peterson's names but couldn't remember the third person so they just picked someone else. Winslow was quick to say that even if Burke had received all 1,300 of the rejected votes, he wouldn't have pulled ahead of candidate Karen Moses.
Incumbent Trustee Katharin Kelker won the race with 6,720 votes and Moses won the second seat with 5,840 votes. Burke lost with 4,148 votes, 1,692 fewer votes than Moses.
The ballots disqualified for choosing too many candidates still were counted toward the two levy issues before School District 2 voters. Voters defeated the $260,000 elementary-technology levy with 6,165 votes in favor, to 5,877 against. The $891,616 high school general-fund levy lost with 7,438 against to 6,481 in favor.
Superintendent Jo Swain said her hope before the election had been that the community still would support education programs within the district, despite the teachers strike and resulting turmoil.
"Obviously, that didn't happen," Swain said.
The defeat of the technology levy will prevent the district from replacing aging computers, Swain said. Without the high school levy, it will be more difficult to add reading specialists to each of the high schools. The high school levy would also have been used to buy textbooks, music equipment and computer labs, she said.
Moses, who will rejoin the school board after an 11 year absence, said a tough year in the district may have made selling the levies more difficult. In the past, Moses has been part of the group Support Your Schools, which rallies support for levies.
This year, she said, most people already were aware of issues in the district.
"Personally, I don't think we were going to change any minds," Moses said. "This was the first time since the strike that people got to cast a vote that mattered."
She must resign her position as counseling secretary at Senior High before she is sworn in as trustee on Monday.
Moses, who spent little on her campaign, said she was glad money wasn't the deciding factor in the race.
"It's nice to know in this particular campaign that money didn't matter," she said. "People studied the candidates and then made their decisions."
Burke believes his campaign might have been hurt by his association with Trustee Gene Jarussi, who helped Burke and candidates Peterson and Wilson start their campaigns. One anonymous group circulated flyers suggesting Jarussi was backing the candidates in an attempt to stack the board in his favor.
Jarussi said he only helped the candidates with filing for their campaigns and left the work of campaigning to them.
"From a political standpoint, I would have just taken care of all my own paperwork," Burke said Wednesday.
Even if Jarussi's association hurt him, Burke said he doesn't think that's why he lost the race.
"Karen and Kathy had a lot of support from the teachers — rightfully so," he said. "I think I lost some votes, but it probably didn't change the final outcome."
Burke said he intends to stay involved as a member of the district's School/Community Committee. He also wishes the board well in its efforts to move the district ahead and keep the right focus.
"In the end, it's got to be what's best for the kids," Burke said.