PALMER - MAT-SU voters turned out in strong numbers for a special election and approved a $39.7 million school bond proposition by 1,521 votes at the polls Tuesday. The unofficial count: 5,010 voters said yes, and 3,489 voters said no.
Voter turnout was "phenomenal" for a special election, according to MAT-SU Borough Clerk Michelle McGehee. "At 17.53 percent, that's through-the-roof for a special election. I've had regular elections that had 20 percent voter turnout," McGehee said.
By contrast, in a 2002 special election for reapportionment of assembly districts, the final voter turnout was 3.8 percent. In 1998, a special election for the largest bond issue here ever, $85 million in school bonds, drew 12.2 percent of voters. The 17.53 percent voter turnout for this school bond proposition is expected to climb a few percent higher after all the absentee and questioned ballots are counted.
Assemblywoman Cindy Bettine sponsored the legislation that called for a special election. Bettine was recently elected to represent the Big Lake and Knik-Goose Bay areas.
"I'm really proud that my first piece of legislation will provide schools," Bettine said on election night. "I felt the timing was right. I picked up this good idea from the joint work session between the state Legislators and Assembly. It's proven to be a great non-partisan issue. That's the way Borough politics is supposed to be, non-partisan."
In the election last October, two propositions for new schools failed with 18 of the 33 precincts voting against a school in the Knik-Goose Bay area and 22 of the 33 precincts voting down a Palmer area school. With this special election, far fewer, 11 precincts of the 33 voted no, many of them narrowly.
Bettine said voter education mattered. "The difference is the campaign showed that $26 million of the cost to construct was going to be paid by the state."
The $39.7 million bond proposition will pay for two new elementary schools, one near the Knik-Goose Bay area and one near the South Palmer/Trunk Road area. $3.5 million will pay to remodel Wasilla High, a 30-year-old school, and $2.2 million will pay for upgrading the 44-year-old Wasilla Middle School.
Under the school debt reimbursement program, the state will pay 70 cents on every dollar to build the Knik-Goose Bay area school and to upgrade both Wasilla Middle and Wasilla High schools. The state will pay 60 cents on every dollar to build the new elementary school near south Palmer/Trunk Road and is currently considering increasing this amount to 70 cents. The reimbursements are subject to annual appropriation. The MAT-SU Delegation obtained authorization from the Legislature for $40 million in projects, which lapses on Oct 31.
Assemblywoman Lynne Woods represents the areas near the Butte and Sutton. "I think we just took a giant leap forward. I felt that people looked at the urgent need for the schools and for the improvements. When you weigh that with the future of our Borough, there's just an easy choice in my mind," Woods said.
The student population in the Borough has grown by an average of 563 new students each year for the past five years. MAT-SU is one of the fastest growing communities in the nation, currently ranked 31st.
Although 1,455 absentee ballots and 635 questioned ballots remain to be counted, Assemblywoman Mary Kvalheim said she does not think the uncounted ballots could defeat the proposition. Absentee ballot results generally follow the polls.
"I'm excited the people of the Valley support education. It means our future has a skilled and educated workforce," Kvalheim said.
The canvass board begins counting absentee and questioned ballots Wednesday morning at 8:30. The count could take one or two weeks. The certification for the election is scheduled for May 9.