A Solution for Low Turnout Making Long-Term Decisions

In March 2024, some local elections saw voter turnout as low as 1.9% but decided matters voters won’t be able to revisit for decades.

Many special elections decide financial questions that directly affect property taxes and determine communities’ policies for decades to come, yet voter turnout is typically a fraction of November general elections. A recent special election held in March 2024 illustrates how few voters understand or engage in one such policy question in particular.

Revenue Purpose Statements

Revenue Purpose Statement (RPS) is a ballot measure describing how a school district will spend sales tax funds the State of Iowa has dedicated to public schools through a program called Secure an Advanced Vision for Education (SAVE). State law mandates that all SAVE money must be used to pay for local property tax relief or school infrastructure needs. If a district wants to utilize its SAVE funds on infrastructure projects by spending that money or bonding against it, officials must ask voters to approve an RPS allowing them to forgo property tax relief.

March 2024 Election Example

When lawmakers created the RPS vote, their intent was to increase transparency and engage voters on decisions made by school districts. Unfortunately, that goal has not come to fruition; these elections are rarely understood by the public and attract very low voter turnout.

The uniqueness of an exception proves the rule. In Glenwood Community School District, voters learned that the extension of their RPS meant the district could bond against the revenue to build something voters had already rejected during the previous election. With emphasis on lowering property taxes if the RPS was not extended, citizen engagement ballooned, and people had substantive and heated debates over the RPS — which is exactly what lawmakers intended. But similar results are rare.


While lack of voter engagement is an immediate, acute problem, the lack of citizen involvement with school district decision-making regarding their SAVE dollars is ongoing and structural. The RPS is confusing to taxpayers and school board members alike. This complexity does not promote good governance.

The state recently extended the SAVE program from 2030 to 2050, and many school districts have already convinced voters to approve RPSs that grant authority up to the later date. Now, those voters will not be given the chance to weigh in on their districts’ SAVE decisions for another 25 years. Much can happen in that time. For instance, the use of SAVE dollars to back revenue bonds has increased over the years. For fiscal year 2023, of the $657.7 million school districts received from SAVE, nearly half was used to pay off debt. This trend does not seem likely to end anytime soon, as more than $2 billion in revenue bonds is outstanding from Iowa school districts. Under current law, revenue bonds are not subject to voter approval.


Voters understand the concept of bonds and debt and should be notified if one of their local governments is choosing to leverage debt for a major project. Therefore, the Iowa Legislature should make a change for the remaining school districts that have not yet extended their RPSs to the maximum date.

Legislators could eliminate the RPS election and replace it with something more familiar. To increase voter turnout and community awareness related to school spending, all revenue bonds should be subject to a vote similar to general obligation bonds. Having the same requirements for revenue bonds and general obligation bonds would also require votes to be held in November, with direct notification sent to registered voters alerting them about the vote. This change would also ensure voters have a say in their districts’ spending more frequently than every 20 years or more.

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