Del Mar school district plans poll on bond possibility

Del Mar Union School District
(Kristina Houck)

The Del Mar Union School District will go ahead with a survey to take the temperature of district voters on a potential bond measure to help the district with its facilities needs on the November 2016 ballot.

The vote was not unanimous on spending the $25,000 on the survey, with board President Doug Rafner and trustee Scott Wooden voting against it.

“It’s not a small amount of money but I also feel that I want to be able to say that we did our best to figure out what people wanted here,” board member Kristin Gibson said, who voted in favor of the survey with trustees Darren Gretler and Erica Halpern.

Wooden was hesitant to approve the survey as he said he didn’t know if they would see anything different than the last time. He said the last survey was essentially the 2012 election, when the district came up short of the required 55 percent approval rate on its last bond effort.

Rafner took issue with both the cost of the survey and the value of the information that the district would get from the survey with a margin of error of 5.7 percent.

“Last time we were told we were going to win and we lost it by less than 1 percent,” Rafner said. “We’ll have the same situation is what I see, only we’ll be $25,000 in the hole.”

At the Feb. 24 meeting, the board approved a contract not to exceed $31,350 with research firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Associates. The firm will conduct a 20-minute baseline telephone survey of 300 to 400 registered voters — they will also use a dual mode, via an online survey.

Adam Bauer of Fieldman, Rolapp and Associates, said ideally the survey would have a sample size of 600 voters but he does not think that it would be possible. He said there are challenges with phone surveys as many homes no longer have a landline, many send unknown calls to voice mail, and cell phone calls are not always reliable. Using the dual mode method, the said they can buy a larger sample using the secondary method of an electronic email survey.

Bauer said with a larger base, you do reduce the margin of error.

Bauer said that he was “not alarmed” by the 5.7 percent margin of error, noting the lowest margin of error they could expect to see is 4.7 or 5 percent.

“I find it difficult to live with that margin of error and spending the $25,000 and not ending up with a real accurate feel. I would prefer a forum,” Rafner said.

Bauer said that the margin of error with a forum would be in the double digits and reiterated that a 5.7 percent margin of error would be reasonable.

The survey will ask voters about their preference for a potential general obligation bond or a school facilities improvement district, which is essentially a GO bond but just carving up the district into different boundaries. Only voters within the SFID vote and only the people in the SFID are taxed to pay the bonds.

In 2014, the district developed a comprehensive long-term facilities master plan that identified a list of projects to support and complement the district’s educational goals. The plan represents $126 million in improvements, including transforming libraries to innovation centers, creating modern learning studios at all schools, modernizing the district’s oldest campuses of Del Mar Hills, Del Mar Heights and Carmel Del Mar, and replacing 25-year-old portables with permanent classroom buildings. McClurg said there are 18 such aging portables on district campuses.

“Our general fund is very, very limited,” Superintendent Holly McClurg said. “We just don’t have the funds in our general fund to address the significant needs at the sites that are in need of most pressing attention.”

Based on a very informal survey at public forums in late 2015, 8 percent were in favor of continuing with the deferred maintenance method the district is doing now, 48 percent favored a GO bond, and 44 percent favored a SFID.

“(The survey) would give us more scientifically sound information about how the general population feels about these two bonds,” Halpern said.

Gibson said she understood her fellow board members’ hesitations given what happened last time but she said there were a lot of factors in play, including the situation with Poway Unified, in which shortly before the election it was found that Poway’s use of long-term, 40-year capital appreciation bonds would end up costing taxpayers almost 10 times what was borrowed.

DMUSD developed a policy at that time against the use of CABs.

“When you did the survey last time you did have the Poway situation, I believe you also had the change in the superintendent, you had opposition and you didn’t have the facility master plan that you do today,” Bauer said. “I think that the facility master plan is the most important things that you’ve done since that point in time.”

“The need is well-documented today where it was not as well documented in those days. I do agree that it’s going to be very difficult to get really solid information on those SFID boundaries, but I do think we will get good district-wide data,” Bauer said. “We’re not doing this just to know would a bond pass or not, we’re doing this to also understand how to talk about this and what your community wants.”

Gretler wondered if anything could be gleaned from the Solana Beach School District, which also recently polled district residents about going for a bond in 2016.

Of the 300 people surveyed, nearly 59 percent said they would definitely or probably vote in favor of a general obligation bond on the ballot, right on the cusp of the 55 percent approval needed.

Bauer noted that the most positive takeaway from Solana Beach’s survey was that protecting the environment, public safety and maintaining local property values came in higher than preventing local tax measures.