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Ashland YAAL supporters seek another victory

There may be no limit to the reach of election anxiety this year, and perhaps no Ashlander can speak to that with as much authority as Juli Di Chiro.

The former Ashland School District superintendent and current chair of the renewal committee for the Ashland Youth Activities and Academics Levy will be following the results of the election Tuesday with rapt attention from 3,600 miles away. And even in paradise — Di Chiro is visiting family in the U.S. Virgin Islands — there’s reason for at least a little trepidation.

If passed, the measure would renew for five years the local option levy which requires residential property owners within the district’s boundaries to pay $1.29 for every $1,000 of the assessed value of their home annually, or $387 for a $300,000 home. If it doesn’t pass, the levy will expire July 1, 2021.

First passed in a slightly different form in 1994, the levy, listed as Measure 15-197 this year, usually qualifies as a slam dunk in a town that prides itself on its high-achieving schools, and that trend continued with another lopsided victory the last time it came up for renewal in May of 2015. But a few numbers have left supporters feeling anxious about its chances in the year of COVID-19.

For one, notes Di Chiro, a 10-person committee managed to raise only $4,000 for an advertising campaign, just enough to cover the cost of informational mailers sent to every resident. For another, she said, data analysis by a member of the renewal committee has shown that about 35 percent of Ashlanders registered to vote in this election were not registered five years ago.

“That caused us a little bit of concern,” Di Chiro said, explaining that the new voters may not realize that money raised by the levy accounts for roughly 10% of the district’s operational budget, or if it’s re-upped, between $4.1 million and $4.7 million each year between now and the 2025-26 school year.

“A 10% cut would be fairly devastating,” she said, noting that could amount to about 35 teaching positions. “Right now, obviously because of the pandemic-caused recession we’re in the middle of, the state is going to be suffering, and of course the main money that the state has to utilize for school funding is income tax, and when people aren’t working or are working less obviously they pay less taxes. So to lose (the YAAL) combined with probably a pretty guaranteed cut in school funding coming up for the next biennium, those two things together would be pretty devastating.”

Short on both volunteers and funding, Di Chiro knew she had a difficult task ahead as she dropped off three “arguments in favor” of 15-197 at the Jackson County Elections office in Medford Sept. 8. When the Almeda fire prevented her from returning to Ashland that night she figured her job was tougher still.

After falling $2,000 short of their $6,000 fundraising goal, the committee narrowed its focus to the mailers, the arguments in favor and a social media campaign that ran on Facebook and Instagram. Di Chiro is pleased with the wide spectrum of endorsements that can be found in the Voters’ Pamphlet, as local representatives (State Sen. Jeff Golden among them), former Ashland school leaders and some key members of the local business community, including the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, wrote arguments in favor. No arguments against the measure were printed in the Voters’ Pamphlet.

Now, Di Chiro is confident that the committee has broadcast its message that the cost of the measure’s failure would be great, and would likely include deep cuts to counseling and mental health supports, physical education and athletic programs, fine arts programs, world languages and music programs.

“We didn’t want a misperception out there that because schools were closed they don’t need the important funding of the YAAL,” she said. “So we wanted to make sure we got the message out about that. And just in general, I think it’s important not to take anything for granted. Our community has always been extremely supportive and generous toward schools. But also, we’ve always tried to run a campaign and inform them of what’s at stake and why it’s important and all those things, so we didn’t want to make any assumptions here.”

Does that mean Di Chiro will be able to enjoy a nice, relaxing day on the beach Tuesday? Not exactly, and not just because of the four-hour time difference (it’ll be midnight in the Virgin Islands when drop boxes here close at 8 p.m.).

“I’d say I’m cautiously optimistic,” she said. “Again, don’t want to take anything for granted, but we do feel that the community continues to be really supportive and that our community understands that in some ways it’s a little more expensive to run schools right now than it is when kids are in school. There’s a lot of additional training and equipment and connectivity that’s required in all of this.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneAshland High School girls soccer assistanat coach Aidan Jones works with 11th-grade goalkeeper Zadi Burke Wednesday.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneAshland High School ladies soccer team run drills during practice Wednesday.