Last month, the Benicia School Board commissioned the Center for Community Opinion to conduct a feasibility study. The study’s primary aim was to assess the chances of passing a parcel tax and a bond for solar retrofitting, but in order to frame the data, the survey asked participants a series of general questions about their perceptions of the school district. Their answers offer an interesting picture of the values of local voters, their opinions of the public school system and the peculiar difficulties supporters of the parcel tax face in the coming months.

The agency completed 403 randomized phone surveys, a number that takes in 2% of the voting population, the threshold number necessary to reach a statistically safe 4% margin of error. The study showed that at $98 dollars the parcel tax would not receive the necessary two-thirds to pass; only a fifty eight dollar tax appeared viable, and its chances dropped when it was paired with a bond for solar-retrofitting. The solar bond appeared unfeasible even as a standalone issue.

The survey asked respondents to grade the quality of public schooling and the district’s ability to manage its finances, to evaluate the quality of the facilities, and to an answer a series of more specific questions.

Overall the news was good. When asked what grade the Benicia schools deserved, nearly 60% gave the school an A or B grade, while 12.9% gave it a C. With 24.1% of voters considering themselves unable to evaluate the issue, the numbers of informed voters who favorably rate the school jumps up dramatically. Only 2.5 percent, or about ten people, failed the school.

All this measures up quite favorably against a national survey called the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitude Toward Public Schools. In that survey, in which only three percent considered themselves unable to evaluate, 10% of respondents gave their schools an A (compared to Benicia’s 18%), the majority gave B and Cs, and a full 13% failed their schools.

Not bad for a district that’s third from last in per pupil revenue—and this in the state of California, a state that, according to Education Week, ranks 47th in what it spends on each student.

At the meeting, the Center’s presenter Brad Senden commended Benicia on having a very healthy voter profile. When I asked how we compared against other Bay Area schools he surveyed, we ranked below Menlo Park and Orinda, but above Milpitas.

But a healthy voter profile hardly assures the successful passage of a parcel tax, and it doesn’t make handling the budget any easier. This became evident in the survey’s final question, which yielded a response that should have bolstered the esteem of board members, but which, in an economically uncertain climate, left them more confused than cheered. When asked what they would change about the district, respondents paid the district a very high complement: 32.3% said they wouldn’t change anything.

But it’s the second highest answer that’s more fascinating, and which best illustrates why determining the community’s highest priorities is an arduous task. Basically, everyone has their hobby horse. Nine percent said the quality of teachers needed changing, six said improving finances should be a top priority, and, despite being a high-profile issue, only 2.9% rallied against class sizes. The remaining 31.5% of respondents gave reasons too miscellaneous and scattered to chart.

So there you have it: on the one hand, no substantial problems; on the other, too many little problems to count.

“In a way,” Senden suggests, “these answers indicate basically the same thing: the public has no overriding problems with the district, and that’s a good place to start.”

Further, the answers respondents gave to other questions show that their values match the district’s. When answering questions that framed the parcel tax as specifically saving certain areas of public education, respondents most supported the tax when it was protecting math and science. Math and sciences are part of a core program that the district considers impervious to cuts: to lose it, or to shrink it substantially, would require nearly apocalyptic circumstances.

But the voter’s second highest priority—retaining the number of teachers working with struggling/at risk students—is certainly in jeopardy. The board has already eliminated summer school for elementary school students, decreased the number of before- and after-school intervention programs across the district, and increased class sizes despite the reluctance of parents and board members.

Other areas are likewise endangered. Sports and extracurricular programs could get a pounding, Early Bird might forever miss its worm, and the already shortened year might lose a few more days.

The specific concerns respondents voiced will soon be transcribed in full, and the Board and superintendent eagerly await the results. “I was pleased overall with the results of the survey. It gave us a chance to hear from the public in a different way. I look forward to the many opinions voiced by Benicia Community members,” says Board President Rosie Switzer.

At the Board meeting where the Center presented its survey, educators and community members provided public comments. High school VP Ron Wheat suggested rephrasing the $98 tax into more palatable daily, weekly or monthly sums. This tactic helps somewhat, say
Senden, but opponents of the tax can demand that it appears as an annual amount.

Such maneuverings seem to already exasperate President Switzer. “It would come out to less than five dollars a month added to their property tax bill—you can’t even buy a good burger for that. I don’t really feel that it would be a burden on anyone.”

She believes the tax will find sufficient community support, even among traditionally tax-opposed senior citizens. “Senior citizens have the option of being exempted when they’re sixty five, and a lot of seniors I know would not only vote for it, they would feel it their duty to pay that tax, even though they’re exempted.”

When it appears on the November ballot, the tax will mark Benicia’s third attempt at passing a parcel tax. They’re hoping the third time will prove a charm, and that Benicia will become the first district in Solano County to successfully pass such a measure.

Post. Script. There were other interesting demographic breakdowns as well. Females preferred the tax to males, the 18-44 year old crowd supported it overwhelmingly, and, like the human eyelid, the approval numbers droop with age. In concert with the belief that independents are trending rightward, Republicans supported the parcel tax in greater numbers than independents. Very active voters supported it less than did the “less active/new” voters.