Tam Union High District
Despite unimpressive recent polling results, the Tamalpais Union High School District (TUHSD) is pressing ahead toward placing on the March 2024 ballot a $1.04 BILLION tax measure for updating its facilities.
The district's messaging to voters focuses on a smaller number -- $517 million -- which is the amount of bonds they plan to issue. Their draft 75 word ballot question (see page 6), will mention only the $517 million figure, failing to state that they expect that, including interest, the true cost to taxpayers will be more than twice that high. TUHSD's polling shows that voters react quite negatively to statements that reveal the $1.04 billion figure, which will they plan to relegate to the much-less-read Tax Rate Statement (see page 14) that they are required to place in the voter information booklet.
Recent reports amplify the upbeat messaging crafted by the district's pollster, Brian Godbe (paid for with taxpayer funds), who proclaims the prospects for passing the bond measure are "encouraging", saying that his poll found a "favorable response" of 59.3%. The tax measure needs 55% to pass.
However, that 59.3% was derived by a novel calculation used by Godbe in this instance. It is not a standard polling metric. It is useful though for reassuring the district -- which is keen to pass this historically large bond measure -- and giving taxpayer-voters a sense of the inevitability of this measure passing.
The correct Godbe poll result figure to look at is the 55.4% “informed support, final test” (see attached PowerPoint slide pack page 15). Moreover, the margin of error is plus/minus 4.9%. Thus the percentage of yes votes will likely fall somewhere in the range of 50.5%-60.3%. Jump ball.
One would think the board would know this and take it into consideration before adding to the $6-7 million of taxpayer money already committed to architectural drawings. campaign consultants, pollsters and mailers.
The “informed support, final test” figure is the polling industry standard. That is the metric that campaign consultants and boards use to gauge whether their proposed ballot measure is likely to pass.
Here's how tax measure polling works and why it suggests
Tam Union's contemplated bond tax measure may struggle to gain voter approval.
The pollster starts with an overview of the proposed tax, in this case presenting poll participants with wording very similar to the 75 word question that voters see on their ballots. Pollsters then determine what percentage of the poll participants say they are definitely or likely to vote YES.
This First Test measures what pollster call Initial Support for the tax measure (see PowerPoint page 8). Then they present the same participants with a list of positive statements about what the proposed tax will pay for... and ask them a second time if they will support the tax. This Second Test result is referred to as measuring “Interim Support” (PowerPorint page 13).
Finally, pollsters present those same participants with a list of negative statements that opponents might use, after which they ask the participants a third time whether they are likely to support the tax. That is the Third Test, which is referred to as “Informed Support” (PowerPoint page 15). In this instance, the informed support for TUHSD’s proposed bond came in at 55.4%. As that is barely above the 55% required to pass the tax measure, and keeping in mind the 4.9% margin of error, this is red flag indicating the bond measure is on the ropes.
It is important to realize that the Informed Support is intended to reflect ALL of the things that voters are likely to consider when voting including, in sequential order: the ballot question, the voter pamphlet Argument for the measure, and the Argument Against.
However, when presenting his polling results at TUHSD's October 24 board meeting, Brian Godbe did something unusual. He largely dismissed the Informed Support figure and declared that the polling results were “very encouraging”. In support of this conclusion, Godbe introduced a novel calculation: average the second and third tests together, with the result being a 59.3% supposed, ersatz, approval figure (PowerPoint page 15, highlighted in yellow). This is just not how professional polls are typically done. It puts a thumb on the scale by, in effect, giving the positive statements an additional weighting. Surprisingly, no one on the board questioned this approach nor the pollster’s expressed confidence.
Let's look at what happened the last time TUHSD had a "meh" result in its final pre-election polling.
In March 2020, TUHSD placed on the ballot another big tax measure, Measure B, proposing a 42% increase in the parcel tax then in effect. Parcel taxes require 66.7% to pass. The “informed support" on their last polling pre-election came in at 66.6%. Similar to the current situation, this final polling signaled a toss-up election.
Godbe did NOT present the board with the non-standard metric of averaging the 2nd and the 3rd test. If he had, the non-standard metric would have produced a misleadingly high 69.0%. In the end, the measure got only 63.84% YES votes on election day and FAILED by a solid margin.
The prospects for TUHSD’s proposed $1.04 billion March 2024 tax measure look very similar to those for March 2020's Measure B: It might pass and it might not. In that light, Tam Union's board would be wise to consider their options, such as focusing only on the Priority 1 “must do” projects and downsizing the tax measure.
The Coalition of Sensible Taxpayers has not taken a formal position yet on the proposed tax measure. However we have encouraged the district to downsize and focus the proposed measure on their already identified set of Priority 1 Must Do projects. We have also emphasized the importance of being transparent in their 75 word ballot question, including revealing in the 75 word ballot question the district's estimate of a $1.04 billion total cost to taxpayers over an anticipated 30 year term of the tax.
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