Almanac

Schools - February 19, 2014

Schools: Survey shows support for big bond measure

By Dave Boyce

The survey results are in for the Sequoia Union High School District and what might be done to make room for a projected 20 percent or more additional students by the 2020-21 school year. Voters would likely approve a bond measure to significantly rebuild campuses, including Menlo-Atherton and Woodside, and raise taxes by as much as $16 per $100,000 of a property's assessed value.

A $16 tax rate would give the district about $294 million to work with, board President Allen Weiner told the Almanac.

The board met Feb. 12 and heard from San Mateo-based pollster Brian Godbe. To pass, a school bond measure needs the approval of 55 percent of the voters. A survey of 800 likely voters showed a June or November election easily exceeding that threshold in seven of the eight elementary school districts in the Sequoia district, and seven of the district's nine communities.

"You're in a pretty good spot, considering we're just starting with this," Mr. Godbe said.

Voters were queried on their support at five different tax rates between $16 and $8 per $100,000 of a property's assessed value. The curve showed about 65 percent support at $16 and a sharper upward trend at around $9.95, with an $8 rate gathering 75 percent.

"That ($9.95 break point) is just the psychology of human beings and purchasing behavior," Mr. Godbe said.

The research found no important differences between a June election, when turnout is typically lower, and November. (A June election would give the district a start on having new construction complete as enrollment begins to grow, board President Allen Weiner said.)

The survey percentages reflected voters who would "definitely" or "probably" vote in favor of or against the question being asked; each question had five options for response.

Board member Chris Thomsen asked about the chances of 55 percent support for a $16 tax rate. "I think you'd have a very good chance at being successful," Mr. Godbe said.

Polls are one thing, and electoral success another, said Sarah Stern-Benoit, a partner at San Francisco-based TBWB Strategies. The keys are informing key members of the public with the district's story and a compelling plan, and finding volunteers to run an effective campaign, she said.

Board comment

In opening up the discussion to the board members, Mr. Weiner asked his colleagues to explain what would be necessary to have their support for a June election — their "big ifs." His were a "confident and thorough" analysis of the district's needs to meet the enrollment projections, and an effective leadership team for the campaign.

Mr. Thomsen noted that, with a smaller turnout in June, "we'll be mobilizing a smaller community." He suggested that the board consider a measure of $250 million to $260 million.

Whatever the number, it is actually about half the total tax burden when interest on the bonds is included, and neither number is likely to appear in voter materials. The period of the tax, often 30 years, is also unlikely to appear.

Common practice is not to include the total, Mr. Godbe said. "It's such an abstract number that people don't get it. There's no sticker shock," he said. He compared a voter's perceptions to buying a car. "Until you get to telling him the monthly payments, it's not real. That's the same thing we're talking about here."

As for the campaign, board member Olivia Martinez asked Ms. Stern-Benoit to talk about the benefits of hiring professionals. They can map a strategy, work on fundraising and endorsements, manage phone banks, and publicize the district's message, Ms. Stern-Benoit said. A June election would mean a brief campaign. "It helps to really hone that time into what has to be done locally," she said.

Ms. Martinez, noting that California taxes are already high, said the board should go for as low a number as possible, and that a June election is preferable. "It's far easier to put a lot of effort into a short period of time rather than string it out," she said. "I think telling (the Sequoia district's) story is really overdue."

Commenting on the notion that a successful June election could allow new classrooms to be ready for the growing enrollment as it reaches the high schools, council member Carrie DuBois and campaign-volunteer organizer Jennifer Webb said they preferred November, even if it meant a later start on construction. The schools could deploy portable classrooms to bridge the gap, they said.

"I would rather not rush (the campaign) just to get the money to start," Ms. Webb said. With maybe 500 phone-bank shifts and 200 walk-block shifts, a campaign "is a big, big thing to have people step up to."

The board is expected to decide later this month on the ballot measure.

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