Why the $111m Anchorage school bond failed

Anchorage voters normally approve school bonds by double digits. This year it failed by over 1,000 votes.

On April 5th, 70,000 Anchorage voters went to the polls and largely voted to re-elect the majority coalition on the Anchorage Assembly. This year saw the most coordinated attempt to remove incumbent Anchorage assembly members in recent history, with every single major opponent being backed by the far-right group Save Anchorage (SA). With the exception of John Weddleton, an independent moderate conservative, every incumbent beat their SA challenger.

At the same time, Anchorage voters declined to sign off on a $111 million-dollar bond package to repair and replace aging infrastructure in the Anchorage School District. It included a relatively controversial $31m bond to replace Downtown’s Inlet View Elementary; district-wide roof replacements; millions for missing fire suppression systems and deferred maintenance; and other needed improvements.

The failure of this bond was surprising to many. School bond proposals usually pass by double-digit margins. The last school bond to fail, which totaled $49.2m in repairs and bus replacements, failed by a slim margin of 2% (just 230 votes!).

In the end, the 2022 school bond failed by 1.65% — or 1,144 votes. Now that precinct-level results are in, let’s take a look at what happened:

Mapping Anchorage’s support for school bonds

First, lets look at how Anchorage typically votes on school bonds. Precinct-level results for prior school bond propositions are available for 2018, 2019, and 2020. Below is a map of the average precinct vote on the school bond question for those years. The map is shaded by raw votes cast for/against the proposition, allowing us to see what areas cast the most votes:

Even in more conservative areas of town, school bonds typically have widespread support. For instance, fiscally conservative communities like Downtown Eagle River, Sand Lake, Taku-Campbell, and the Hillside almost always support these bonds (albeit by lower margins of support).

Comparing the 2018-2020 average vote to the 2022 school bond vote, this year saw a major reversion in support from almost every part of the municipality. The map below shows the difference in support between the average school bond vote and the 2022 school bond vote. The darker the red, the larger the decline in support for the school bond.

As you can see, support for the 2022 school bond dropped in nearly every precinct in Anchorage. The clearest reversion happened in District 2, with the top 3 precincts to swing against school bonds coming from the Eagle River area.

School bonds usually pass in Eagle River by a thin margin — an average of 500 votes. This year, it voted against the bond by nearly 1,500 votes. Remember, the 2022 bond failed by less than 1,200 votes total.

Other conservative areas in the Anchorage Bowl also expressed unique distaste for the 2022 bond compared to previous years, including the Abbott Loop-Dowling area and much of South Muldoon.

The only areas to match or outpace their average support for school bonds are also some of the most progressive precincts in Anchorage: lower Airport Heights in Midtown, Centennial Park in Northeast Muldoon, Forest Park in Turnagain, and parts of the Downtown Core.

Even community opposition to the rebuild of Inlet View Elementary didn’t stop the neighborhood from voting to approve the bond by a historically similar margin. Inlet View’s precinct has voted on average to pass school bonds by around 280 votes. This year, they voted to approve by 214 votes.

What sunk the 2022 bond?

The data tells us two stories: that conservative voters turned out against the proposition, and that many voters saw this year’s bond as different from previous bonds.

Generally, Anchorage voters don’t pay much attention to the bonds voted on every year. Our lack of awareness about bonds causes varied results because simple messaging can turn voters towards or against them. If you tell a lot of voters that a bond will raise their property taxes and push the tax cap, as Must Read Alaska has told their listeners and viewers this year, and they might revolt.

It is likely that the high price tag of this year’s bond ($111m) alienated low-information and low-turnout voters.

Its true that the partisan, high-turnout areas of Eagle River disproportionately turned out against the bond. However, wholesale support for the bond disappeared in communities that have always heavily supported them. There was no sophisticated campaign to educate or persuade these voters against the bond, so it’s not as if you can give the credit to Save Anchorage’s Assembly candidates for getting out the vote against it.

Instead, the bond failed because regular voters saw the highest price tag for a school bond in over a decade and didn’t feel it was justified. The average voter is tangentially concerned about government spending without a good reason to tolerate it. For instance, 2020’s school bond contained $82m in repairs, which was also a generally high-cost school bond. Context matters: voters probably sympathized with the cost of repairing over dozen aging elementary and high schools damaged by the 7.1 earthquake that rocked the municipality in late 2019.

Now, 2022 is the year of high prices and bloated budgets — inflation is a dominant concern among voters, as are major hikes in property assessments stemming from the housing crisis in Anchorage. It just wasn’t the year to try and pass an expensive bond package.