The Vanguard has a new home, please update your bookmarks to

Monday, June 30, 2008

Commentary: November is Not the Right Time for Parcel Tax

Last Monday at the school board meeting it was a unique experience to read the results of the district's focus group study. The surprising results of the focus group study is that the Davis School Board could have saved themselves a lot of time and money by simply reading the comment section of the People's Vanguard of Davis for the last six months every time the prospect of the parcel tax came up.

That is not an attempt to be arrogant or cocky, but simply to suggest that the findings of the focus group study closely mirror the comments made in the comment section of the Vanguard. Based on these findings, I am skeptical that a parcel tax can pass in November.

The major findings of the focus group study suggests that there is a deep distrust of local government among focus group participants. Notably they do not distinguish between the performance of the City Council and that of the school district (something that we noted in fact on the campaign trail as well). They believe that the District has the incentive to continually increase the budget year to year and that any funding from a parcel tax will become part of the larger pot of funding expectations and expenditures that cannot be tracked. Accountability is a huge concern for the focus group.

These participants were aware of the state budget crisis and the local impact on schools, but were very reluctant to increase taxes locally. They want assurances that money raised in Davis stays local and is not taken by the state. They are also concerned that money raised locally would simply result in the district getting lower amounts of funding from state (they do not understand in other words how funding for schools works and that is an important component of any campaign to educate the public). What I found interesting, is that Jay Ziegler mentioned that they were more likely to pass a short-term sales tax rather than a parcel tax.

Accountability again is a key issue. They want a set of specific funding priorities that can be measured and tracked. The longer the duration of the parcel tax, the more accountability is required, since they were concerned that as time goes on voters would forget about what was promised. They want a community-led, independent assessment of the district's funding priorities and benchmarks. They would trust independent financial experts to audit the status of the parcel tax and make recommendations to the district and the public.

There is a segment of the public that simply does not want to raise taxes. That shows up on the Vanguard every time I post on this topic and it represents about 31% of the voting population according to polling. Given that you have to get 66.7% support to win a parcel tax, that does not leave much margin for error.

The polling shows that this is a winnable election--that people if convinced that the school district could be held accountable, if the tax proposal is for a limited time period, if sold this issue, two-thirds of the public would vote for it.

But here is the problem: November is not the time for convincing.

Here's why.

The polling that you see is the result of around six months of concentrated news coverage in which the schools' budget crisis was the top news story and the top concern for many in the public. From January until at least April, the issue dominated the news. And even now it remains high on people's minds.

Even after this long period of sustained coverage, the polling results show that if the election were held today, the parcel tax would fail. And we need to remember that is with essentially a margin of error of plus or minor 8. That means actual support at the $80 could be anywhere from 54% to 70% and the actual support of the $140 could be anywhere from 49% to 66%.

There is worse news. Schools are not going to be the top concern on people's minds this fall. That is because almost everyone is very concerned about the Presidential election. The national media which will drip onto the Davis Enterprise's front page will compete with local news. Even on the Vanguard, the Presidential Election will likely from time to time penetrate onto our blog.

In addition, we expect a bitterly contested contest for State Senate between Lois Wolk and Greg Aghazarian. There are eleven initiatives on the ballot including things such as gay marriage and parental consent for abortion. There are several environmental initiatives as well. All of these will diffuse attention from various constituencies.

The first four months of the year saw the direct threat of teacher firings, school closures, and student marches. However, between September and November, the budget will be a more distant threat. The threat will not be looming around the corner, it will not be the focus of the school board, the papers, the community like it was last winter and early spring, and as a result there will not be the concerted coverage and the urgency that we saw.

The community did rally behind the schools, but to sustain that effort is more difficult. To get beyond the 30% of the public to the 85% that may turnout will be difficult. It will take organization, money, and people. That may happen, but many of the people who would ordinarily walk for the schools, will instead focus on Barack Obama, Lois Wolk, and some even people like Charlie Brown.

If we could not get to two-thirds after the type of sustained attention this received this winter and spring, how are we going to do it now during perhaps the most important Presidential election of some people's lives? It is a prospect to be sure.

I think Janice Bridge last Monday raised an excellent point--it would be a great advantage come January to know that the money will be there for the teachers and the programs when they start working on the next budget. The more I think about it, the more I think it will be a great advantage to passing the parcel tax when the public sees that if they do not pass the parcel tax in March, the district will be laying off 100 teachers in May. That level of urgency is unfair to the teachers and the employees of the district, but necessary for the students, the parents, and the public to once again rally around the schools, this time not to raise money through a campaign for schools but rather to go out into the community and convince them why they should vote to give the school district an additional $80 to $140 per year.

In March, again we'd be looking at the 30% core school supporting turnout that has passed parcel tax after parcel tax. The parcel tax would be the only issue for consideration. The newspapers can focus on the issue too, lowering the cost.

The more I think about it, the more I believe the school district is making a big mistake pushing through for November. The more I think March is the best window to pass this thing.

The thought by the school district is that if they don't pass the parcel tax in November, they can do it again for March. That sounds good in theory, but they are relying on the efforts and energy of volunteers. The more you wear out volunteer efforts, the less return you get. If you push people in November trying to pass a parcel tax, you will not get the same energy coming back in March.

For all of these reasons, at the end of the day, I think the school board needs to re-think their decision to go for it in November. The public needs to be sold on this, and trying to teach 85% of the public in November is an overwhelmingly daunting task that does not have to be attempted.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting