By Marsha Sutton
More than 64 percent of likely voters in the San Dieguito Union High School District would support a General Obligation bond in the November election to improve and upgrade the district’s facilities, SDUHSD board members learned at a workshop May 9.
“This is a strong result,” said Timothy McLarney, president of True North Research, Inc., an Encinitas-based survey research firm. “Voters are seeing your performance and saying this is a good investment.”
What makes these results impressive, McLarney said, is that high school districts typically receive less support than elementary and unified districts.
Relying on three years of staff and committee research, investigation and planning, the SDUHSD school board authorized the district in March to survey local voters to gauge their reaction to a proposed tax that would address facility needs.
The Irvine-based Dolinka Group, hired by the district in Feb. for bond-related financial advisory services, subcontracted with True North Research to conduct the poll.
McLarney said the 17-minute telephone survey conducted between April 20 and April 27 reached about 500 people whose profiles represented a sampling of the district’s demographic make-up. The margin of error was 4.4 percent.
Participants were asked if they would support increased property taxes to repair and upgrade aging schools, improve science labs, classrooms and libraries with modern technology, and boost student safety and security.
Additionally, they were told that the bond money, although required by law to be used only for capital improvements and school facilities upgrades and repair, would free up general fund money which could then be used to hire and retain qualified teachers and save academic programs.
The district’s proposed General Obligation bond measure, for $448 million, would include independent citizen oversight and would need 55 percent to pass. With survey results indicating 64 percent of voter support, the recommendation by the district’s consultants was positive to move forward.
SDUHSD superintendent Ken Noah said he would bring the item to the next school board meeting on May 24 for discussion. At that time, board members can ask questions and share their thoughts, he said, as well as hear from community members on the issue.
Eric Dill, SDUHSD’s associate superintendent of business services, said exact wording for the bond measure must be decided by the July 26 school board meeting, which is when trustees will vote whether to place the bond levy on the November ballot. Wording must be officially submitted in final form to the county Registrar of Voters by August 10.
Dill said the exact amount and terms have not yet been determined. The district has been using the figure of $25 per $100,000 of assessed property value, for 30 years, as a starting point. For property valued at $600,000, this would cost property owners $150 per year. This amount, he said, would raise the needed $448 million.
The maximum taxation allowed under law for this bond is $30 for every $100,000 for 40 years, Dill said.
The Dolinka contract for financial advisory services related to the GO bond is for $85,000, to be funded by campaign donations and future bond issues.
The polling work will be paid to Dolinka by the district and is costing $18,000 when the poll is complete, $2,000 per month for March through July, $1,500 for August 1 to 15, and other expenses related to authorized work.
The poll findings
Benjamin Dolinka of the Dolinka Group said the poll indicates that voters are aware of the district, know its geographic areas, and are favorably impressed, with more than 67 percent of respondents saying the quality of education in the district was good or excellent.
“This is amazing,” he said. “We don’t see this in the state of California. For a high school district to have this type of rating needs to be recognized.”
McLarney said the category of “don’t know” about the district can be as high as 20 to 25 percent in other polls. “But that didn’t happen, so it indicates they know the district,” he said, telling board members that San Dieguito has “more visibility than they might expect.”
When given a choice of options, the poll revealed that 84 percent of respondents were most concerned with maintaining the quality of education in local schools.
The main reason for supporting the measure was that all the money would stay in the district and be used to support local students. A close second was that good schools help protect and improve local property values.
The main reason for not supporting the measure, according to the 27 percent who said they would vote against it, was that there is too much wasteful spending in government.
After hearing negative arguments, McLarney said the one that most resonated was that now is not the right time to be raising taxes.
Yet even after hearing the arguments against the measure, McLarney said most respondents continued to back it. “Support is quite resilient,” he said.
Conclusions of the report were that the bond measure is feasible, there is a high opinion of the district’s performance, the quality of education is important, and the district’s facilities needs are well-aligned with voters’ priorities.
The district has “a very good chance (that) if you move forward you will be successful,” McLarney said.
Newsman and district parent Graham Ledger, speaking from the audience, identified himself as a member of the Tea Party and addressed the group, saying, “I see a lot of backslapping.”
He asked McLarney how many of those surveyed were homeowners and how many renters, saying this matters because renters don’t pay property taxes and would not be affected by passage of the bond. McLarney said about 65 percent were homeowners and 35 percent renters.
Ledger also said the pollsters were “asking questions in a vacuum” since they did not inform respondents of other local bond measures that might appear on the same ballot.
Competing bond measures
MiraCosta College is considering a possible $500 million bond measure this fall, and the Del Mar Union School District’s Board of Trustees at its April 25 meeting voted 3-2 to authorize a bond feasibility study, to be conducted by Dolinka.
San Dieguito trustee John Salazar asked how these measures might affect support for SDUHSD’s bond.
McLarney said competing initiatives are common and that 94 percent of the time the bonds pass if polling indicates that success is feasible.
Nevertheless, Ken Noah said he had concerns about passage if voters are faced with three GO bonds on the November ballot that all ask for increases in property taxes.
“I worry if we are competing,” he said. “When I heard about Del Mar, it caused me to pause a bit.”
After the meeting, Noah said he anticipated state tax initiatives on the ballot, but that troubled him less than the unknown impact of local school tax proposals.
“This is high stakes in terms of what we’re asking our communities to support,” he said.
Pointing out that SDUHSD has been working on the issue of facility needs and planning since December 2008, he said the community expects due diligence and that the district would be prepared with a list of needs and projects that is the result of a “lengthy, exhaustive and involved process” that is “defensible and consistent with … the community’s priorities.”
Noah said he was aware of MiraCosta’s proposed bond to improve aging facilities at the college’s three campuses, which was based on a 20-year comprehensive master plan. MiraCosta’s boundaries include Solana Beach, Rancho Santa Fe, Del Mar and Carmel Valley.
But Del Mar’s sudden interest in a bond measure last month came as a surprise, Noah said. “I know this was not on anybody’s radar,” he said.
The issue is further complicated, Noah said, by already existing taxes on property owners for school facilities in Encinitas, Cardiff and Rancho Santa Fe.
Noah said he would recommend proceeding with the bond measure, but if board members have “overwhelming concerns” about competing bonds, “then that would certainly cause me to rethink this.”
His other concern is full board support for the initiative. “If I have wavering support, then I think that would cause us to pause,” he said. The GO bond requires a super-majority — 4-1 or 5-0 — for a governing board to place the measure on the ballot.
“It’s important for me to know whether we have sufficient support at this point to move forward,” he said. “I believe we do, but I want to hear that.”
The San Dieguito Union High School District serves more than 12,000 students in grades seven through 12 and encompasses North County’s coastal region from Carmel Valley and Del Mar in the south, east to Pacific Highlands Ranch and Rancho Santa Fe, and north to the southern edge of Carlsbad.
Twenty-eight members of a San Dieguito Union High School District long-range facilities planning task force, created in 2008, met regularly to review student demographics, economic trends, housing development and other factors to determine district facilities needs for the next 50 years.
In addition to technology, task force recommendations of proposed projects include modernization, capital improvements, demolition, expansion of existing facilities and new school construction.
The district is considering a General Obligation bond to raise about $448 million to fund the projects listed here. In the southern portion of the district the total comes to about $167.3 million, and in the northern portion the total is about $168.4 million — not including new construction and districtwide costs.
Middle schools ($94.9 million):
• Carmel Valley -- $8.9 million
• Earl Warren -- $35.1 million
• Diegueno -- $30 million
• Oak Crest -- $20.9 million
High schools ($260.8 million):
• Canyon Crest Academy -- $35.2 million
• Torrey Pines -- $88.1 million
• San Dieguito Academy -- $76.2 million
• La Costa Canyon -- $41.3 million
• middle school in La Costa Valley -- $15.5 million
• middle school in Pacific Highlands Ranch -- $71.1 million (includes land purchase)
• Sunset/North Coast alternative schools -- $10.5 million
• Districtwide technology -- $18 million