Del Mar school district survey shows positive voter feedback on bond feasibility

By Karen Billing

The Del Mar Union School District received positive results on its general obligation bond feasibility survey at a June 14 special meeting. The survey indicated that 64 percent of surveyed voters would be willing to support a measure on the November ballot if the district opted to go in that direction. The board is expected to make a final decision on the bond at its July meeting.

The district’s study was conducted by the Dolinka Group, with help from True North Research and TBWB Strategies. The survey was given by telephone to 300 district voters who are likely to participate in the November 2012 election. The calls were made from May 26 to June 5, lasting 17 minutes per call.

Tim McLarney, president of True North Research, said that because November is a presidential election it is an easy one for voters to participate in. A high turnout is expected: Of the 22,535 voters in the district, it is likely that 19,997 will participate in the election, according to McLarney.

In order for the bond to pass it needs 55 percent of the vote, or 10,999 “Yes” votes.

The survey presented voters with a measure that issued $95 million in bonds in order to improve instructional technology and computer systems in classrooms, libraries and school facilities; repair and maintain aging classrooms and buildings; improve student safety; and make funding available to protect and enhance the quality of core academic instruction.

In the initial ballot test, 64 percent said they would vote “Yes” on the measure. At the completion of the survey, with more information given, 63 percent said that they would vote “Yes.”

Among the 29 percent that voted “No,” 18 percent said they needed more information and another 18 percent said that the measure was unnecessary, that the schools are OK.

McLarney said those were good answers because they did not reflect that people were opposed to the bond on principle and none of the other answers were red flags about the district.

The survey tested the tax threshold that people would be willing to support. Sixty-one percent would support $12 per $100,000 of assessed property value; 64 percent would support a bond at $8 per $100,000 of assessed property value; and 69 percent would support $5 per $100,000 of assessed property value.

“The good news is that every one of those tax rates were above the needed 55 percent threshold,” McLarney said.

It is possible there will be two GO bonds on the November ballot as Del Mar is considering one at $12 per $100,000 and the San Dieguito Union High School District is considering one between $20 and $25 per $100,000.

The Del Mar school board did voice some concerns about voters supporting two bond measures on the same ballot, but district superintendent Jim Peabody said that if the districts go about it in a cooperative way, they may both be successful.

“We don’t want to punish the taxpayers, we want what’s best for the children,” Peabody said, noting that the bonds could strengthen both districts. “We’re in this together.”

Charles Heath of TBWB Strategies agreed that there are ways to manage two educational bonds on the ballot.

“There are strategies to limit the impact of competition between measures,” Heath said. “Voters can see it as a package, working together to provide quality education in the community from kindergarten through high school.”

The survey tested programs and projects that voters would favor the bond supporting and the top ranking was making funds available to retain and attract quality teachers, repair projects and improving instructional technology. Voters were least likely to support bond monies being used to improve parking lots.

“Those three things — modernizing, technology and general fund relief — that combination is quite compelling,” said McLarney. “There are very few things on the list that we can put in the package that would generate a lot of push back.”

The district shined in the survey when respondents were asked how they view the quality of education that the district provides. McLarney said it’s a key issue as the better the district is doing, the more likely voters will support the district.

Fifty-four percent of those surveyed said the district’s quality was excellent, with 27 percent ranking it as good.

“These are among the best results I’ve ever seen for a question like this,” McLarney said.

Another area the survey measured was the importance of issues. Maintaining quality of education in local schools topped the list with 49 percent finding it extremely important and 41 percent finding it very important.

“That’s an ideal scenario for having a successful tax measure,” McLarney said, noting the district’s main task would be packaging the measure in a way voters would like to see it.

The survey also asked voters about their support of a parcel tax of $250 that will last five years to help the district attract and maintain quality teachers, maintain class sizes and provide advanced programming. Only 47 percent of voters said that they would support such a parcel tax. However, when told — hypothetically — that the state would reduce funding to the district by $250 per student annually, 57 percent said they would be in favor of the parcel tax.

That boost in support was seen as promising by the consultants if the district finds itself in that position.

“There’s a strong probability you could put together a [parcel tax] campaign even if the GO bond measure is approved,” Benjamin Dolinka of the Dolinka Group said.

The parcel tax could be on any special election ballot whereas June 2014 would be the next opportunity for the GO bond.