Part 2 – Respondent Comments
By Sue Groves
Even though survey respondents indicated support for most of the levy’s parts, the data suggest that other factors may be at work which caused actual voters to be against the overall levy proposal. We believe answers can be found in respondents’ comments – which go beyond the merits (or demerits) of the levy’s stated purposes. Most comments summarized here were expressed multiple times and in various ways – but the general sentiment was clear. In all cases, we have tried to shield the source from discovery and preserve the survey’s anonymity.
Mistrust of the Board of Education and Central Office: According to survey respondents, the principal reason the school levy proposal failed in the 2016 general election is voters’ wide-spread lack of trust and confidence that the Board of Education, Superintendent, and central office staff can be relied on to spend additional money wisely or for the intended purposes. This view was expressed by members of all sub-groups of respondents, including those who voted for and against the levy proposal. A significant portion of respondents expressed contempt for the central office. A common belief is that central office staff works a short day and gets paid extra money to do what should be their job in the first place; payment of supplements to secretaries is viewed as a waste of money that could be used for maintenance or other expenses. Respondents feel there is a lack of accountability, and the views of teachers and the general public are ignored or rejected without serious consideration.
Mistrust is pervasive among survey respondents. Many said, “I do not trust the Board Office” before adding comments about poor planning, fiscal mismanagement, lack of truthfulness, and the failure to maintain school facilities. The feeling is that the school system is run by people who put their own self-interest ahead of the interests of students, teachers, and the schools. Many respondents believe that some school administrators are unqualified for their positions and “secretaries” are paid several times the average wage in the county. Unless and until these perceptions change, many respondents said they would not vote for any future levy proposal even though they agree that county schools need more money.
Maintenance: Mistrust of the Board and school administration is heightened by a sense of sadness and disbelief that maintenance of school facilities was deferred and neglected for so long that buildings are now regarded as crumbling and cannot be fixed. Many comments acknowledge that schools are in serious need of repair and upgrading but then say the problem is failure to maintain the buildings and planning) rather than the need for new buildings. The idea of throwing away buildings that haven’t been properly maintained offends many respondents who use the analogy of maintaining a house or car if one expects it to keep operating.
Maintenance is seen as a constant issue for which there should be a long-term maintenance plan and an annual budget to keep up with maintenance requirements – not the approach of “fix on failure”. Somehow, money is found in a crisis to patch things up but not enough money is budgeted to keep things in proper repair. Unless the approach to maintaining school buildings is fundamentally changed, many respondents felt that passing the levy would only lead to a repeat of the current situation in another twenty years, or so.
Several comments cited the need for a qualified maintenance manager or supervisor. Some comments were to the effect of “I’m in favor of making repairs, but not in wasting money.” The feeling is that contractors should not be hired unless there is no alternative to using existing staff – who should be qualified for many types of maintenance work.
Taxes: Some respondents commented that they don’t want to pay higher taxes to support the schools – often saying that existing funds are sufficient and just need to be spent more wisely – especially for maintenance. A few expressed concern that the elderly, poor, or those on fixed income would have difficulty paying higher taxes. About as many comments, however, said that taxes were not the reason the levy failed; instead, they wouldn’t mind paying extra taxes if they could trust that additional funds would be spent for the intended purposes. Building on the fact that most respondents who voted for the levy will likely vote for any reasonable future proposal out of a sense of duty to support the schools (which was cited in numerous comments), the overall impression is that an increase in property taxes might be supported by a majority of voters if (1) they understand what the money would be spent for; (2) they agree with the reasons more funds are needed; (3) they know that tax increases are not excessive and are limited to a certain number of years; and, (4) there is credible assurance that additional revenue will be spent only for the intended purposes.
Financial oversight: Several respondents suggested that in order to restore confidence in financial management of the school system and ensure that funds are spent for intended purposes, it will be necessary to institute an independent audit or oversight committee to monitor and control spending during the school year. (This would be separate from the annual audit performed by the State.)
Moving seventh and eighth grades to the high school: Data in Part 1 shows that a majority of respondents oppose moving seven and eighth grades to the high school. Numerous comments from respondents who voted both for and against the levy explain why.
There is a general desire to keep students in community-based schools through the 8th grade.
A few respondents could see the advantages of such a move because it could offer enrichment programs for middle school students, but the perceived disadvantages (i.e., longer bus rides, including mixing high school boys and middle school girls during the last leg of the morning bus ride and the first leg in the afternoon, lack of clarity on how middle school students would be segregated from high school students, combined with the isolation of the high school) were viewed as too great for parental comfort. A few respondents were not upset about the prospect of mixing 7th and 8th grade with the high school, but objected to the lack of a realistic plan.
Numerous respondents, however, expressed outrage in their opposition. The fact that 84% of survey respondents who voted against the levy also oppose moving 7th and 8th grade students to the high school suggests that this amounts to a single issue that could ruin the chances of any future levy proposal that includes it.
Community Involvement: Many respondents complained that the levy proposal was presented to the public in October 2016, less than a month before the election. Respondents who attended multiple public meetings heard changing details and fluid plans that did not seem coherent. Some respondents felt there was no chance to make changes based on public input – that the whole exercise was a waste of time.
Common complaints were: teachers were not involved before the proposal was developed; civic groups were not enlisted to help inform and shape the project proposal; the focus was on meeting SBA deadlines, not on community involvement to develop plans voters would support; plans were scattered and disorganized; details kept changing between public meetings; plans should be stable and thought out before taking them to the public.
Critics felt that planning was rushed and incomplete despite the fact that the initial proposal was submitted to the School Building Authority in 2015. Many older respondents remember how the community was involved in planning for construction of current school facilities in the 1970s and 1980s; there was complete involvement of the community, including high school students, throughout the entire process. They do not feel the recent experience compares favorably to what they know worked in the past.
This report was prepared by Sue Groves, Michelle Jeffers and Jay Miller working as the Building Consensus Committee. The Committee is independent of the Pocahontas County Board of Education and school administration; all expenses were borne by the Committee’s members.