What They're Thinking: Mount Vernon School District Superintendent Gary O'Malley

Voters last week rejected raising taxes for $15.9 million bond issue

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MOUNT VERNON — Mount Vernon voters sent a strong message last week as more than 63 percent said no to a $15.9 million general obligation bond for the school district.

The funds would have paid for a new athletics complex, auditorium and various updates in the district’s three schools. Had the bond issue passed last Tuesday, it also would have sent property taxes in the city of about 3,400 to about $20.47 per $1,000 of taxable value — one of the highest rates in the state.

Superintendent Gary O’Malley, who assumed the district’s top spot in 2013, said he and the Mount Vernon school board will have to figure out what to do now.

Q: What was your reaction when results for the bond vote came out Tuesday night?

A: I was surprised. In fact, I asked the person on the other end of the line to double-check he didn’t have it reversed — that 63 percent had voted yes. But it is what it is and the voters have spoken. We respect their decision and we’ll be thoughtful and patient as we decide what to do next.

I’m disappointed because so many people worked so hard to provide a strong case for these upgrades. But we didn’t make a strong enough case, and it’s so hard to ask people to raise their taxes. We need to be sensitive to the notion there are folks on fixed incomes, and there are people who saw this as more of an increase than they’re comfortable with.

Q: What are you hearing from constituents in Mount Vernon about why they voted no?

A: We’ve already received some emails and texts from people who voted no explaining why, and we appreciate that. I will probably ask faculty for their advice about what we could do next, and certainly the board will weigh in.

We’ve asked, and it’s been answered. Part of being respectful is not expecting people or asking people to justify that. If we believe these are needs that need to be met, then we need to look at how we can reduce those costs, or maybe we need to introduce them in shifts.

Q: Moving forward, what can the district do to address the facility updates that would have been paid for by this bond issue?

A: We do have a plan to use our PPEL (Physical Plant and Equipment Levy) resources to continue upgrading smaller projects. And we’ll examine that now in light of the rejection of the referendum. There will be a committee of board members and community members to make decisions about PPEL.

I’d love to have some of those projects done — the ventilation of science rooms, ventilation of the middle school gym. We’ll be aggressive in terms of trying to use these public resources wisely in addressing those issues.

Q: What about the facility additions of a high school auditorium and an activities complex? Is there any hope for future construction of those projects?

A: No, not without a public referendum. What’s interesting about those projects is there is a tendency to pit them against each other, that one is more important than the other.

I think it was wise of the board to put them together. I don’t want to encourage either-or arguments, because I believe these are all needs, and they would all be beneficial to students in Mount Vernon. But I know there will be some discussion because there were a lot of people who supported pieces of this referendum.

Q: Are you considering introducing another bond question? When would that go to voters?

A: We need to be careful of thinking too quickly or blaming people. It’s not rocket science — the question’s been asked and answered, and now we need to decide how we change the question, or if we even ask the question again. We’ll deliberate about that.

We have to wait six months (before introducing another bond question). The earliest we could do that would be April. We have to discuss if that’s a good idea, and I know there will be some who want to go back in April.

But my advice to the board is not to rush to ask for the money, it’s taking time to explain what the money is going to be used for. These are public dollars, and we need to be good stewards.

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