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Online chat regarding Mt. Diablo district’s Measure C at 11 a.m.

By Theresa Harrington
Tuesday, July 27th, 2010 at 9:35 pm in Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Theresa Harrington.

By Theresa Harrington

Higher education reporter Matt Krupnick and I will participate in an online chat tomorrow at 11 a.m. regarding the Mt. Diablo school district’s $348 million Measure C bond, which voters approved in June.

Trustee Gary Eberhart has also agreed to participate, along with Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.

During a phone call with Eberhart this afternoon, I asked again about the poll results.

“I don’t know if I received a poll or not,” he said. “I could have sworn I have. I went through my (computer) system either yesterday or the night before and I haven’t been able to find it anywhere.”

But Eberhart said he recalled speaking to Superintendent Steven Lawrence about the poll and seeing a question related to extending the current tax rate.

“I remember a question that said something to the effect of: ‘Would you support or would you oppose, and to what degree’ — I don’t think it was just yes or no — but, ‘Do you support or oppose adding the new passage of a new bond if the cost of the payments would be added at the end of the current bond’s payments, so the yearly annual payments wouldn’t go up,’ or something to that effect.”

This question is very different from the one Eberhart originally said was asked, because it does not inform voters that extending the tax rate would increase the overall cost. It also doesn’t inform voters that their annual payments would still go up, even if the current tax rate stays the same.

This is because the current tax rate is capped at $60 per $100,000, but homeowners are only paying $49.30, according to Jon Isom, the district’s financial consultant. With the new bond, homeowners will pay the maximim amount of $60 per year.

Trustee Sherry Whitmarsh also told me in May that she thought the poll asked voters to choose between a lower rate for a longer term — which would cost more in the end — or a higher rate for a shorter term. Last week, she told me she never received the full poll results, but was basing her previous comments on a PowerPoint presentation and/or a conversation she had with a campaign consultant.

The March 9 PowerPoint presentation to the board by EMC Research is missing from the district’s website. However, I obtained a copy of it from the district after the meeting.

It contained 15 slides and concluded that more than 55 percent of voters would support the ballot measure, if it asked for “three hundred million dollars in bonds” (instead of $348 million). It also included several questions related to the types of improvements voters would suppport, showing swimming pools ranked lowest and career and technical education facilities ranked highest.

Finally, the presentation showed that “positive messaging” was able to influence more voters to support the bond. It showed that “negative messsaging” swayed some people to vote against the measure, but predicted the bond would still have a good chance at passing.

This presentation did not include any questions about tax rates.

I have also obtained a more complete PowerPoint presentation that was given to the campaign committee, Community United for Excellent Schools, or CUES. This version was provided to me by former members of the committee who supported a parcel tax, but opposed the bond measure because of its overall cost.

It consists of 34 slides, including 19 that were removed from the public presentation and one that was altered. One key slide omitted includes this “Description of the Measure: As you may know, a $250 million bond measure was approved by voters in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District in 2002 to continue school facility improvements. This new bond would allow the district to continue school upgrades and renovations while homeowners continue to pay the same tax rate they approved in 2002, with no increase. Approving this measure would renew the voter-approved annual homeowner tax rate of $59 per $100,000 of assessed value annually.”

This shows that the district had already decided to extend the tax rate before it polled voters, since it was assumed in the description.

Other slides taken out of the board presentation showed that those who viewed the district favorably were more likely to support the measure and parent perceptions of the quality of education in the district and the school board had improved since November 2009. However, perceptions of the district’s financial and budget management remained negative and over half of those surveyed believed the condition of school properties and grounds was only fair or poor, according to slides removed.

Five slides about “messaging” were also deleted from the board presentation. Voters were given information about the bond measure and asked if it made them more likely or less likely to support it, or if it made no difference.

This information included one statement (in poll question number 28) that referenced the tax rate: “Already approved in 2002, without increasing taxes above that rate, and will provide much-needed funding to repair local schools.”

Forty percent of voters said they would be much more likely to vote for the bond given this information, 25 percent said they’d be somewhat more likely, 26 percent said it would make no difference or they didn’t know, and 9 percent said they would be less likely to vote for it.

When I met with Lawrence and Isom in April, Lawrence told me the poll asked voters if they would prefer the continuance of the 2002 bond versus a new bond. Isom said question 28 was the one that covered that.

Question 28 does ask voters if they support continuing the current tax rate, but it doesn’t give them the option to instead choose a new bond at a higher rate to keep the overall cost lower, as Eberhart, Whitmarsh and Lawrence have asserted. It also doesn’t inform voters that keeping the same tax rate could make the overall cost five times more expensive.

In addition, question 28 fails to tell voters what the rate is ($60 per $100,000) or to mention that their annual payments would increase to the maximum amount (instead of the $49.30 they are currently paying). It also neglects to inform voters that extending the tax rate would lengthen the term of their payments to 42 years.

Other slides removed from the board presentation included “negative messaging” that said some people think energy-efficient projects are not necessary, some projects such as theaters might be considered frivolous and now is not a good time to ask voters for more money, in a down economy.

Slides reflecting voter attitudes were also deleted. These showed voters in March were more pessimistic than they were in November and that 74 percent in March thought “things in local public schools are off on the wrong track,” up from 70 percent in November.

Finally, the slide that ended up last in the board presentation was changed, with the ballot description (which included the tax rate extension) removed.

The removal of the slides that mentioned the tax rate extension, combined with the superintendent’s failure to include it in the staff report and board resolution, left the public in the dark about the fact that trustees were choosing one of two options. And although Lawrence, Eberhart and Whitmarsh have said they had conversations about the two options, none of those conversations took place in public.

Eberhart told me today that he would be willing to go back to the voters and ask them if they would prefer to pay a higher rate for a shorter amount of time to lower the overall cost.

“Does the public approve of what we’ve done?” he said. “If the voters want us to go back and change it, if that’s possible legally, I’m willing to do that.”

But he insists Isom’s estimates are unrealistically high.

“The $1.87 (million) number is completely a bogus number and I don’t care who told you that,” he said. “I’m asking staff to go back and refigure the numbers.”

Are you happy with the board’s decision? Ask questions or tell us what you think during the live chat at 11 a.m. Details are here: http://www.contracostatimes.com/ci_15606906?source=pkg

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