Editorial: Beware of calculating surveys

A taxpayer-funded survey that pinpoints voter preferences on a proposed parcel tax vote in the Hollister School District shows voters must be aware of a potentially dangerous precedent developing, and that an industry is wholly devoted to manipulating local electorates’ decisions.
A taxpayer-funded survey that pinpoints voter preferences on a proposed parcel tax vote in the Hollister School District shows voters must be aware of a potentially dangerous precedent developing, and that an industry is wholly devoted to manipulating local electorates’ decisions.
The telephone survey done by San Franciso-based Dale Scott & Co. in January weighed 400 probable voters’ preferences for a tax, how much they would be willing to pay, and what kind of wording would more favorably influence their decisions, among other questions. It was done as part of a contract with the firm that gets paid $130,000 over the next four years, but only if the $96 parcel tax passes on the June ballot requiring two-thirds approval.
Unfortunately, such an arrangement is common in education and local government in general, so it is crucially important that voters keep themselves as informed as possible while also maintaining a close watch on attempts at manipulation, with such a consultant’s motive clearly and solely to get the ballot measure passed. This isn’t charity work, after all.
With budget shortfalls cropping up across the state and nation, the Hollister School District certainly isn’t alone in turning to alternative methods of generating revenue. Districts in this region are turning to proposed parcel taxes, and it appears an increasing number of them are using contracted surveying services to weigh the feasibility of passing the items.
They will argue that paying a consultant ensures they won’t be wasting their time and even more money – if such proposals face dire chances at the polls. That is fine and theoretically could be the most prudent direction, but there is something eerily calculating about expanding such services to narrow down everything from the preferred dollar amount to the precise wording that would stir the voters’ emotions just enough to favor the ballot item and have every possible dollar squeezed from their willing wallets.
Let’s keep in mind that this isn’t a political party or lobbyist fighting for a particular cause or candidate. This is a school district, where the citizens and voters are the boss – where in this case, the boss could ultimately end up paying for Dale Scott & Co. to give its best shot at swaying the vote.
The company’s surveying in Hollister produced results related to the preferred tax amount and length of the tax term; finding elections with lowest turnouts, which would strengthen the union vote; a flat tax versus one based on square footage; and the phrasing on the ballot that would garner most support, such as language about restricting the state’s ability to take the funds, how none would go toward administrator costs, and that an independent panel would oversee the spending.
Those preferred statements, to make it worse, are disingenuous. There would be nothing preventing the district from using money from another funding pot to increase administrators’ pay, and we don’t need further evidence than the city’s Measure T oversight committee, and an untold number of other examples, to know that such independent citizen panels carry virtually no weight and serve as stamps of approval for the politicians who choose the members.
The school district has every right to ask its citizens for more money, especially considering the state of education in America, and Hollister in particular. The use of a consultant and detail-packed surveys, though, serves as another reminder that school leaders all too often perceive a false separation between themselves and the community, and that voters now have yet another bag of political trickery to keep in mind.

Leave your comments