Photograph: Broken Bow school board member J.B. Atkins (left) with his family.
Broken Bow Public Schools board member J.B. Atkins emerged victorious on November 14, after a local effort to recall him failed at the ballot box. About 60 percent of school district voters chose to keep Atkins in office.
At a time when the public is chattering about political intrigue and scandal around every corner, what prompted the campaign to remove Atkins may come as a surprise to Nebraskans.
Atkins was facing a backlash for convincing his school board to lower property taxes.
Following the downturn in agricultural commodity prices and a reduction in farm incomes, Atkins, who was elected in 2016 on a conservative platform, felt obligated to do something to help area taxpayers.
He advocated for reducing the district’s tax levy from $1.05 per $100 of assessed property value—the maximum allowed under state law without voter approval—to 90 cents.
“We can’t continue as a district to tax our patrons at the max levy for $1.05, because that has increased taxes on our patrons exponentially in some cases,” Atkins told the Kearney Hub at the time.
When assessed valuations on property rise, property taxes increase even when tax levies remain the same.
“And because we’re primarily an ag-based economy here in Broken Bow, it affects everybody,” Atkins told the Hub.
While the majority of the board adopted the tax rate cut, not everyone in the Broken Bow district was satisfied.
“A very loud group, but one that did not represent the majority, tried to demonize me into someone who hated kids. No one wants to be accused of harming children, so school spending gets very little oversight or questioned in any way,” said Atkins.
According to Ballotpedia, voters in Nebraska can petition for a recall of local elected officials for any reason. In school board elections with multiple winners, only a small share of signatures from registered voters are needed.
Since Atkins won in a six-way race with 1,295 votes, the recall petition required signatures totaling 35 percent of that amount, or 454 signatures.
Atkins said recall supporters had two aims: first, to improve the chance that property tax rates could be increased in upcoming budget years by replacing him only one year into his four-year term, and second, to create a chilling effect among tax relief advocates in the community.
“The strategy was to ensure that no one with my conservative values would run in the next election for fear of being attacked in the same manner that I have been,” said Atkins.
“It demonstrates the power of the teachers union in a small community where the school is one of the largest employers in town. This power is exactly why we have property tax issues in my opinion,” said Atkins.
Atkins believes his win shows there is an unmet need in Nebraska’s tax and spending debate.
“My takeaway is this: the public is hungry for someone to stand up for them and be unafraid of special interests. I never voted for anything extreme,” said Atkins.
While many point to the Nebraska Legislature to provide a solution to high property taxes, J.B. Atkins took direct action at the local level, where property tax rates are set in the first place.
“It seemed the harder I fought back with the facts, the more support I gathered. People appear to want someone that will fight for their fundamental beliefs and not just give in.”