Del Mar Union School District (DMUSD) will not move forward with putting on a bond for its facilities needs on the November ballot after a survey showed just a bare majority believes that the district has a significant need for funding. The board met for a special meeting on May 2 to hear the results of the bond survey conducted by Fairbanks, Maslin, Maullin, Metz (FM3) and Associates.
Based on potential ballot language for a $135 million bond, 57 percent said they would vote “yes” (36 percent definitely “yes,” 21 probably “yes”) with 10 percent of the undecided “leaning ‘yes.’”
“Including that 10 percent you are well clear of the 55 percent required threshold but you’re relying on some people who aren’t very confident about it,” said Adam Sonenshein, a researcher with FM3. “A district-wide bond measure is viable for the plan but with the requirement that you do community outreach.”
About half of those surveyed saw at least “some need” for additional funding with only 11 percent saying there is a great need. Sonenshein said support for the measure is directly linked with the perception of the district’s need for funding.
DMUSD Trustee Scott Wooden was concerned that the numbers were not stronger and maybe a little weaker than the survey they did before their last bond — in 2012 the district’s bond fell short with 53 percent support.
“I’m worried that it looks very similar to what it was last time and without the public saying we have a need for facilities, I think it’s going to be a difficult task,” Wooden said. “We have three schools that have significant needs but not the other five, so it’s going to be very hard to convince people.”
Calls were made during April 7-21 and 255 people took part in the survey, with a 6.1 percent margin of error.
Sonenshein said voters in the district have very positive feelings about the district — 87 percent believe that DMUSD is considered among the best. When asked how they would rate how the district is doing, 38 percent said the district was doing an excellent job, 34 percent said it was doing a good job, but 20 percent said they didn’t know. Sonenshein said that 20 percent is a little higher number than they typically see and reflects members of the district who don’t have children in the schools and who will need more communication about what the district is doing and its needs.
The amount of the bond didn’t seem to have that much of an effect on people but there was some sensitivity to the tax rate and how it would cost their household, Sonenshein said. When they lowered the tax rate, the support levels went up: a $29.25 yearly cost garnered 51 percent “yes” and a $19.25 tax rate received 57 percent “yes.”
Adam Bauer, a consultant with Fieldman, Rolapp and Associates, said that the November timeline would be “tight” to do the kind of outreach and communication they would need to do, especially if there is a strong opposition group.
“There will likely be negative arguments that could be a challenge. If people already don’t recognize that you have a need and someone is in the paper saying you don’t have a need that could be difficult,” Bauer said. “I think you have a path to be successful but I think you expose yourself to some risks.”
Trustee Erica Halpern said it’s almost like the district is a “victim of its own success.” They are seeing the district is doing a good job and that the schools look good from the outside — it’s harder to convince them that they have needs, she said. As DMUSD Superintendent Holly McClurg said, when people drive up to school they aren’t seeing a crumbling campus with paint chipping away but they also don’t see the 25-year-old portables in the back, where campuses were never really completed.
DMUSD President Doug Rafner said their schools look great as they have been doing improvements in small increments, “We’re bailing water as it comes in but pretty soon it’s going to flood.” The challenge is in how to communicate that with district voters, he said.
The survey did also test a School Facilities Improvement District measure, a $85 million bond for upgrades at the district’s oldest schools of Del Mar Hills, Del Mar Heights and Carmel Del Mar. Only voters who live within the SFID for those schools would vote and pay for the bond. The SFID got less support than the district-wide bond with 33 percent voting definitely “yes,” 21 percent probably “yes” and 5 percent undecided but leaning “yes.”
The next opportunity for DMUSD to consider a bond would be in June 2018. At this time, the board seemed to be in favor of a “longer term play,” starting to communicate with the public now and possibly do another survey later to determine if the time is right.
“What I’m hearing is a continued, very concerted work at communication, working with our community to inform them we have needs for facilities and very limited funds. I’ve also heard that the funds that we do have, we need to be prioritizing as we have been,” McClurg said. “I think that a plan moving forward over the next year or two years is important. We will be in very close contact with the community so they truly understand that we do have facilities needs and how schools are funded because we don’t receive special funding for facilities.”