From the June 2, 2010 issue.
By Elaine Weinreb
Press Staff Writer
At a special meeting held on May 26, the Northern High School Union School District (NHUHSD) came one step closer to having a $25 million school bond measure placed on the November ballot.
The board listened to a presentation by Greg Isom, of Isom Advisors, on a survey conducted by his Walnut Creek firm asking some local residents about the bond.
Isom said that the survey results proved that local voters were willing to pass the $25 million general obligation bond. He passed out a booklet of colored graphs, which he said backed up his statements.
No members of the public were present at the meeting, and board member Robin Marks was absent.
If the bond measure passes, each property owner in the large district will pay a minimum of $19 or a maximum of $30 per $100,000 in property value for the next 20 or 30 years. The amount that would be brought in by the bond is estimated at $19-25 million.
Isom Advisors will be paid $70,000 for each bond series sold, $20,000 for each bond program, thousands more in disclosure documents, and an unspecified fee for consulting services.
The interest cost of the bond is unknown. The remainder of the bond funds can be used for school improvements.
The district is expected to foot the bill for the survey, which cost between $6,000 to $8,000.
Many of the survey questions were very general, asking if voters agreed that “good schools improve property values” or that “local voters need to do more to protect the quality of education in their local public schools.”
Only about 30 percent of those surveyed said that the Board of Trustees was doing a good or excellent job, and the same number said that the district’s finances were being handled well.
Only half the voters approved of the direction in which education at local high schools was headed.
Of those surveyed, 53 percent said they would support a “school improvement bond measure… on the November ballot.” Another 3 percent said they were leaning toward support, but not committed to it.
At least 55 percent of the voters must approve the measure for it to pass.
The same question was asked later in the survey, and garnished one more percentage point, bringing the “yes” vote up to 54 percent.
“The survey says you have the support of the average voter,” said Isom. He urged the school board to go forward with the measure, and start a “public information program,” which would “educate” the public.
About 50 percent of those surveyed said that they would be likely to support “construction of physical education facilities,” but only about 40 percent would support “constructing athletic facilities” or “constructing an all-weather track.”
Isom noted that voters would respond positively to the term “physical education” but not to the term “athletics” even though the two terms refer to the same facilities being proposed.
“It’s the same exact thing, but that’s what voters want to hear,” he said.
The school district cannot lobby the voters directly to pass the bond, but it can help set up a committee of volunteers to do this. Isom said that his company will be involved in the campaign to get voters to approve the bond, if that is the wish of the campaign committee.
Isom said he would prepare a list of answers for questions that voters might most frequently ask. He also said he was preparing a “road show” with pictures for the voters.
“What is a bond? How long can it go for? How much is it going to cost? What projects are going to be fixed? Is now the right time? We have answers for all of these,” he said.
He recommended placing the measure on the November ballot, because in November, conservative voters, who might vote against the bond, are outnumbered by the large number of students who usually vote.
Almost no young people were included in the survey, which questioned 400 residents in the district. Nearly all those surveyed were over 45. No people at all under the age of 25 were surveyed, and only about 11 percent were in their 20s, 30s, or early 40s.
Isom said this was because young people don’t have landlines, and therefore are harder to reach.
The type of school bond being proposed cannot be used to pay teacher’s salaries. It must be used for buildings or improvements. This disturbed board member Dana Silvernale.
“Voters are more concerned with keeping teachers employed, and keeping the teacher-to-student ratio low,” she said.
Silvernale and board member Sarie Toste were the only two people present who expressed concern over the issues being raised. Toste said that she was worried over the increasing tax burden to local residents.
Silvernale said that she was disturbed that there was no definite list of projects. She wondered how she could answer questions from the community, if she herself didn’t know what was involved.
“People support anything that is green or energy efficient,” Isom said. “If we want an all-weather track, do we phrase it as an all-weather track, or do we call it physical education?”
“But people are going to ask me what that means,” objected Silvernale.
“You have to tailor your messages to each specific group,” he said. “Your group might be more concerned about energy efficiency; Brian’s group might care more about sports.” He referred to the campaign process as “education.”
Silvernale said that she did not know what all the projects were, and felt uncomfortable trying to promote something to the public if she did not know the details.
“Trust the process,” replied Superintendent Kenny Richards.
“I need more information,” she insisted. “We’re getting more information at the next board meeting, but I need more than that.”
”Just go home and write out your questions,” replied Isom.
Silvernale asked the board to hold a workshop, at which the details of which project would be included could be worked out.