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Friday, March 30, 2007

District Debates Parcel Tax Renewal and Valley Oak Parcel Tax Wording

Last night the Davis Joint Unified School District took up the issue of polling to determine a number of issues involved with the renewal of the parcel tax.

They have hired a firm to conduct a survey that will question 400 registered voters on a number of issues including how much to raise the parcel tax by in order to accommodate the increase in the cost of living, district priorities, and they will also explore changing the term of the parcel tax from a four year term to perhaps a six or eight year term depending on the responses of the public. The responses would be accurate to a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percent within a 95 percent confidence interval.

Currently, the parcel tax represents roughly 5.5 percent of the district's revenue. It is assessed at $166.90 per parcel in the past measure and the renewal would add an additional 20 dollars to this tax--a modest increase that represents a basic COLA increase.

The parcel tax must be very specific in terms of what it funds. At the elementary school level it helps fund classroom size reduction and an elementary reading program. At the secondary level it funds the seventh period for the junior, extended hours for the library and help for at-risk kids. In addition it funds $20 per student for classroom supplies district-wide, technology, counseling, nurses, and training for teachers. (For a full list click here).

The poll will ascertain the public level of commitment those things the parcel tax currently funds. In addition, the board will come up with an additional 20-25 items that it could potentially fund based on community input from various meetings. The pollster will also ask a two open-ended questions to ascertain whether there are other priorities that the public has that the board perhaps has not considered.

Board Member Gina Daleiden mentioned to me that the public can give direct input to the district through the district website, the website directs people to email the district.

Without this parcel tax the district would be in serious financial jeopardy. The problems that the district faces now, pale in comparison to the problems that it would face if the parcel tax were to fail.

The most interesting and also the most contentious part of the discussion last night focus around the second parcel tax and Valley Oak.

They will specifically test separately for the Valley Oak parcel tax. What was perhaps most interesting is that contrary to the concerns raised last week by Board Member Keltie Jones, the consultant said that it has been his experience, particularly in Minnesota that the primary tax gets a bump from a second tax that is tied into it, rather than is harmed of. This represents a general measure of support for education in general. The first proposal gets a boost and in fact the passage of both becomes more likely when they are put on the ballot together than if they were test separately.

Board President Jim Provenza wanted different ways of phrasing the initiative tested--would calling it a nine school initiative be more successful than a tax to keep Valley Oak open. The consultant suggested that almost all language was completely testable in these surveys.

Board Member Sheila Allen flatly stated that she thought a Valley Oak only initiative would lose but a neighborhood schools initiative would pass.

Both Gina Daleiden and Keltie Jones were concerned about language not being misleading. Jones pressed for the language to be that of the initiative and in fact at times seemed very much against even having a ballot. The concern of Daleiden was mostly to be sure that the board not mislead the public.

They made it clear that the motion that was passed was to close Valley Oak unless the public decided it was a priority to keep it open and fund it. It seemed that the board consensus was that they would make it work if the public were willing to increase taxes to fund it. Tim Taylor, who made the original motion, said he was heartened by the consultants comments that the duel measures actually improved chances of passage rather than the other way around.

One thing I think that the board lost sight of somewhat is that the purpose of a poll should be to obtain as much information as possible rather than needing to get the wording for the initiative exactly right before hand. They need to know what the public is willing to support and what their priorities are. Based on that information they can then make informed decisions about what should or should not be on the ballot. But in the meantime, they should ask every question. That means ask the public about the second parcel tax in as many different ways as possible to see what the public will support and what the public wants. And as Provenza and other suggested, do not put a measure for Valley Oak parcel tax on the ballot that will likely fail if you can avoid it.

Keltie Jones suggested that they needed to be the ones to make the decision on priorities and they should not simply base it on the poll. One thing that I suggest is that a poll might tell the board that the public has different priorities from them and that might be very useful information and they may indeed want to make decisions based on the information that the public gives them. That is perfectly legitimate in my view.

Members of the public from Valley Oak seemed concerned by some of this discussion. Fred Buderi of Davis OPEN also suggested they might test a single-ballot initiative with the entire increase encompassed within it. He pointed out that in fact some of the general parcel tax funding provisions went to some students and not the entire student population. I think that is also something that could be tested although from what the consultant said, it may be better to have both ballot measures--which is certainly a bit counterintuitive. I think most assumed that two would be more difficult to pass than one and that it might even jeopardize the one. It would be ironic if the opposite were the case.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting