By Nicholas von Wettberg
In its commitment to responsible fiscal planning, and to offset average support through the state’s educational funding system, the Davis Joint Unified School District (DJUSD) has all but guaranteed that, come November, residents will vote on a parcel tax ballot measure.
Trustees held a special meeting at the Community Chambers, on Monday night, to discuss the details of the parcel tax, such as its potential rate, range of services, and duration.
Attending the meeting were employees from EMC Research, who provided the school board with results from a telephone survey conducted this month, in which the responses of 400 Davis voters were recorded as part of a parcel tax feasibility study.
The current and future impact from funding as a result of parcel taxes, which has been an integral part of the Davis educational landscape now for over three decades, is roughly $9.5 million (Measures C & E collectively), maintaining needs and supporting services like math and reading programs, core classes, secondary foreign language programs, and music programs.
EMC Vice-President Jessica Polsky, who presented the findings to the five-member board, confirmed that the main goal of the telephone survey “was to identify the level of support among likely voters for a $620 parcel tax for the November 2016 ballot.”
Perhaps the most crucial finding of the study was that over two-thirds of respondents supported the parcel tax, which would be ideal for the passage of such a measure.
Support was high with younger voters and for those with minimal voting history (low propensity).
While an increase in rate (from $620 to $750) did receive a majority of backing, it was not enough to cross the two-thirds threshold, although Polsky pointed out that the order of questions might have been a slight influencer.
Just below three-quarters of the respondents answered optimistically when asked if the community’s school climate is favorable, and that “things here in Davis are generally going in the right direction.”
When compared with responses to the same warm-up question from eight years ago, there was a difference of only two percentage points, from 75 percent in 2008, down to 73 percent for 2016.
Another comparative question had to do with the perceived need for increased public school funding.
In 2008, 36 percent of residents said there was a great need for more money while almost an equal amount (35 percent) now said there was some need.
The percentage of responses indicating belief that there is a great need for more funding in 2016 was exactly halved, down to 18 percent. The amount of those who feel there is some need for more funding jumped up three points, to 38 percent.
Broken down to sub-groups, parents with students currently enrolled in a DJUSD school had the highest amount of responses (25 percent) that said there is a great need for increased funding. Under half (46 percent) of the parents with current students responded with some need for more funding.
Responses from former parents appeared lower in both the category of a greater need (21 percent) and some need (35 percent) for more funding.
Gauging a general awareness for parcel taxes was another one of the questions.
Looking back to the answers given in 2008, only 45 percent of the people said they were aware of a parcel tax for DJUSD. Fast forward to now, and 59 percent of respondents said yes, there is a parcel tax.
When those who said yes were asked how much Davis homeowners pay each year for the school parcel taxes, 12 percent said the amount was $200 or less, 13 percent said the amount was between $201 and $400, 11 percent said the amount fell in the range of $401-$700, and 10 percent said the amount was $700 or more.
Over half (54 percent) of the respondents did not know how much Davis homeowners pay each year.
“The basic takeaway for us is that there’s not a lot of understanding of what homeowners currently pay in parcel taxes,” said Polsky.
The level of awareness of an existing tax varied dramatically between subgroups of renters (26 percent) and homeowners (81 percent), and between subgroups of parents of current students, parents of former students and other.
Not surprisingly, the subgroups consisting of homeowners and parents of current and former students (79 percent & 80 percent) were the most aware of an existing parcel taxes.
Quality of education and trust in the school district were the subject of the phone survey’s next series of questions.
The first was whether voters believed the district was doing an excellent job (28 percent), a good job (52 percent), didn’t know what kind of job (7 percent), only a fair job (12 percent), or a poor job (2 percent) overall.
Voters were then asked how they rated the quality of education, with responses finishing at 40 percent for excellent, 44 percent as good, 6 percent saying they didn’t know, 8 percent saying it was only fair, and 2 percent responding that the quality of education is poor.
“So, almost universally positive ratings and we took a look just to compare these questions with some other districts that we worked for and these ratings are quite high, definitely among the higher-performing school districts that we worked for,” Polsky said.
Three out every four voters surveyed answered yes when asked if they had trust in the district with their tax dollars.
Attitudes about taxes comprised the next pair of questions, which were whether voters thought taxes were already high enough, or if they would be willing to raise taxes in order to maintain the quality of schools.
Sixty-two percent of respondents disagreed that taxes are high enough, while a whopping 83 percent of voters agreed that raising taxes would be worth it as long as the quality of education remains a top priority.
Circling back to the initial parcel tax measure, a 75-word ballot question was provided for voters participating in the survey.
The sample question reads: “To maintain outstanding academic programs in math, science, reading and writing; retain high-quality teachers; keep class sizes small; support student health and safety; and maintain student athletics, arts and music programs, shall Davis Joint Unified School District replace its expiring school parcel taxes at the 2017-18 rate of $620 per parcel for 8 years, raising approximately $9.5 million per year to be used exclusively for Davis schools, with citizens’ oversight, annual audits and an exemption available for seniors?”
Voters were asked if they would currently vote yes or no to approve the measure, and 74 percent said yes, 21 percent said no, and 5 percent were undecided.
As for initial support on the parcel tax measure, by subgroup, what stood out to Polsky was the high level of support among younger voters, renters, and low-propensity voters.
One of the key aspects to the survey had to do with overall willingness to support a tax.
Sixty-four percent of voters strongly agreed that they would vote yes to approve an annual parcel tax of $750 with the operative word being to “improve” educational programs.
That number jumped to 71 percent when voters were asked about approving the $620 measure for the district.
Three voting demographics that ranked high in their yes responses to support for a $750 parcel tax were those aged 18 to 49 (80 percent), renters (76 percent), and those who have voted between zero and three times in the past six general elections.
Reliability was one of the influential factors in the survey, overriding techniques like a split sample amount with unbiased read, because of the relatively small number of voters polled would entail a bigger margin of error.
“We knew that it was extremely important at this point in time to renew the parcel taxes to maintain current programming,” Polsky explained. “We also knew that the $620 amount was higher than average for a parcel tax. We didn’t know how voters would respond to that but knowing that it’s extremely important to renew that amount, we all arrived at that as the priority for the survey, the primary goal figuring out if that measure would pass.”
Trustee Barbara Archer, who serves on the district’s Parcel Tax Subcommittee, said that they made sure to include questions about the higher amount ($750) so they “would have some data for discussion.”
According to Polsky, the decision to use the $750 amount was based on factoring in additional programming and the voters’ ability to digest the figure.
Board Member Susan Lovenburg asked how the length of term (8 years) was reached, and if it was by choice or advised.
“We definitely recommended a sunset of more than four years so that voters don’t have to vote on this again in such a short period and also based on our experience,” said Polsky. “We do see that voters tend to be willing to support a longer term than four years.”
Associate Superintendent Bruce Colby explained that the district likes the parcel tax to stay on course with the general election.
“Increments of four are just better for our passage,” he said.
Trustee Lovenburg wanted to know how the board would use the poll to inform voters if they believed there was a reason to increase the tax past the $750 amount.
“Do you think that there is an ability to extrapolate from this or would you actually have to go back and retest a higher amount?” Lovenburg asked.
Polsky answered yes on both fronts.
“I think if you were to go back and test a higher amount, all of this data would stand and you would have a very simple poll that simply tested a ballot question with a higher amount,” she said. “I also think that it’s interesting to see that there is some price sensitivity because we saw more lower-level support for $750 than for $620.”
Polsky added: “That does suggest that while there’s a limit for some people, for a few people, so we think in order to pass more than $620 it would require as we say really careful consideration of the risks and potential rewards. Again, we could definitely go out and do another survey and test an unbiased question with a higher amount but I do think you can take away from the survey that there’s a very high level of support for both amounts whether we would exceed two-thirds for a higher amount than $620 you can’t say for sure from the poll.”
Trustee Alan Fernandes commented about how surprised he was at the lack of understanding of the actual amount of the parcel tax.
“I surmise that’s because we’ve just had layer upon layer of parcel taxes and different durations and times, etc., but is that common in your experience that the public really doesn’t know really what they actually pay in the parcel tax?” Fernandes asked.
“It’s extremely common,” Polsky said. “Its very rare for the public to know the dollar amount that they’re paying.”
Parcel tax guru Jay Ziegler believes the district should take a good look at its increasing reliance on parcel tax money, which he pointed out accounts for 10 percent of the operating budget. He cautioned not to think the measure would solve a dearth of long-term problems.
“I’m reminded in our series of campaigns in past years that what the Board also has to wrestle with are changing circumstances that we don’t really know what 2018, what 2020 is going to bring in new challenges to the district,” Ziegler said. “I think my cautionary note in this evening is that I think all of us are very comfortable thinking about lengthening of term, in providing more assurance on what the base of the tax delivers in a predictable fashion for the district in planning.”
Ziegler added: “However, I think when you think about technology challenges that the district has to respond to in upgrading its curriculum by meaningful in-class instruction connects with kids in an increasingly complex world you know that’s another issue that’s not addressed in the parcel tax. There are a lot of things that are not built in to the thinking strategically beyond, really, what’s our visceral reaction to the performance of our schools and what do we think this community is to provide in order to meet that baseline?”