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

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

School Board Opts for November 2008 Parcel Tax

Polling Shows Plausible but Difficult Battle to Get it Approved

Yesterday morning, in a special meeting, the Davis Joint Unified School Board viewed preliminary polling of focus group results for a proposed parcel tax. The findings show significant support for such a proposal of between 57% to 62%--however that support is lower than the two-thirds threshold. Moreover, both polling focus group results showed very strong currents of distrust for government accountability and fear about current state and national economic tides.

On the basis of these findings, the board by a 5-0 vote, decided to place a parcel tax on the November ballot. They will still have to work out most of the details such as the amount of the funding, the duration, and the specifics of what this parcel tax would fund.

The research was conducted by EMRC Research with assistance from local consultant, Jay Ziegler who ran the previous parcel tax.

They began with a focus group study which focused on Davis Seniors and also younger Davis voters. These individuals were considered middle voters who were neither strongly in support nor strongly opposed to a parcel tax. They were also considered persuadable on this issue.

Frankly, some of the results of the focus group study resembled the comments section of the Vanguard.

What they found was a deep distrust of local government among some of the 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 further 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. (It should be noted that all these things were done for Measure Q already).

A final note of interest, the current parcel tax did not heavily factor into their decision about a new parcel tax. None of them knew the amount of the current parcel tax and most of the participants suggested that strong accountability would increase their support for a parcel tax regardless of the amount.

They then went through the polling results which were literally received at 4 pm on Sunday afternoon. Two things to be mindful of. The margin of error overall was plus or minus 5.7 percent. Half of the participants in the poll heard questions based on an $80 parcel tax and half heard it for $140. That means that the split sample margin is plus or minus 8! Keep that in mind when these results are discussed.

For the purposes of this discussion there are really five categories--two in the affirmative and two in the negative and one neutral or don't know--that have been combined into affirmative, negative, or don't know. The first question dealt with how much need there is for more money for the school district. 36% said there was a great need, 35% said some need, 11% did not know, 10% said little need, 8% said no need. So 71% answered in the affirmative and 18% in the negative. That shows a soft support, but there is at least a two-thirds awareness that there is a need for more money. They viewed that as a positive for the parcel tax.

Additionally 67% were concerned about funding for the Davis Schools, considerably less were concerned about funding for the county and the city. 72% said maintaining the quality of our schools should be a top priority.

The next polling result is a critical one. 31% say that taxes are already high enough and that they would vote against any tax increase. 68% were opposed to that. That number is right on the border. The pollster suggested that this number has risen across the board in the last year. She thinks this is a caution but a good indicator that a parcel tax is plausible.

66% trust DJUSD to manage tax dollars appropriately, however, at the same time 60% agree that there has been a waste of opening and closing new schools. 33% believe that the district already has enough but the money has just been mismanaged with 59% disagreeing.

So those are the generic questions. They then put a basic write up for a parcel tax including accountability stipulations. On the initial vote, neither the $80 nor the $140 would pass if the election was held today (keeping in mind the high margin of error).

The $80 sample had 62% support while the $140 had 57% support. The bottom line here is that the district will have to work to get either one of these passed. One thing that was clear from these results was that they need to determine how much they need rather than base it on polling results.

This is going to require, according to Jay Ziegler, a privately funded campaign to connect with the voters and give them reasons as to why we need this.

When they broke down the support, they found, not surprisingly that there is much stronger support from DJUSD parents as compared to non-parents. Among both non-parents and older voters, support for the $80 parcel tax is under the two-thirds threshold. On the other hand, no demographic had less than 57% support for the lower of the two. For $140, 83% of parents support passage but only 48% of non-parents. Likely voters were at 62% for the $80 and occasional voters slightly lower at 58%.

The scary statistic of the day is really the lack of basic knowledge by the voters. For example, only 45% knew that they currently paid a parcel tax while 51% did not know and 6% thought we do not currently pay a parcel tax.

Accountability is huge--they want to know where the money is spent, know that there is transparency and accountability and there was overwhelming support (76%) for having a sunset date and the district having to bring it back to the voters.

The board and the consultants went back and forth on March of 2009 versus November of 2008. The basic consensus was that November would be a tougher and more costly election given the very high turn out. The key demographic would be student voters who will come out to vote for Obama and trying to to get them to support a parcel tax.

On the other hand, there are good reasons for having it in November. The data, according to Mr. Ziegler benefits from a three to six month sustained period of public awareness about the District's budget problems. The further we get from that, the more difficult it is. Also this would allow the district to go into the 2009-2010 budget process in January knowing where they stand on money.

Richard Harris made a crucial point however about where the district's finances fall. They are starting with roughly a $1.7 million hole that was bridged temporarily by the Davis Schools Foundation. In addition, and he suggested that media reporting did not make this clear, they used about $1.2 million in carryover funds the other day to balance the budget. So realistically, the district will start next year at a $3 million deficit.

There was definitely an awareness on the part of the board about the accountability issue. There is an oversight committee for Measure Q, but it has not yet had a chance to operate and work, because Measure Q funding was just approved for the next school year. So we really have not had a chance to test the system yet.

The board did not make a determination on the amount of the parcel tax yet. However, I would guess they will go with a figure closer to an additional $140 per parcel rather than $80. It gets them to the amount of money they need and they realize that either way, getting a parcel tax passed will not be a walk in the park.

That is really the final point that needs to be made. The district knows this is not a slam dunk. The last parcel tax had very strong support from the beginning. It was largely a "get out their vote" campaign. This campaign is going to need to educate the voters during a time when many will focus on the Presidential Race. And, it will have to convince an 80 to 85 percent turnout rather than a 30 percent turnout.

What seemed clear watching this is that everyone knows this will be difficult. There is a good chance it will not pass. However, they see no other option other than cutting teachers, programs, and facilities. There was also a recognition of the voters who have serious reservations and they need to build in those accountability mechanisms.

Personally I think a November ballot measure is more risky than a March one, but I understand the rationale for going forward now.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting