Survey: Park City School District bond could face steep challenge
Consultant urges Board of Education to consider delaying measure to build more support
June 27, 2017
The bond proposal the Park City Board of Education has said it plans to put on the ballot this fall may already be on shaky ground as wounds from a failed effort in 2015 continue to fester.
Several members of the school board seemed to acknowledge that possibility at a public meeting last week as they reviewed the results of an in-depth survey indicating the district may face an uphill battle to shore up enough support to pass a bond in November's election.
The survey, which the school board commissioned this spring, polled more than 700 residents who are probable voters this fall — in an off-year election — about how likely they are to support the bond, among other topics. Since the district has not determined a dollar amount for the bond — the bulk of which would pay for an expansion of Park City High School and a new school for fifth- and sixth-graders — the survey asked respondents to consider two price tags and informed them how much each would cost an average taxpayer.
For a hypothetical $68 million bond, 56 percent of respondents said they would either definitely or likely vote for the bond, while 44 percent indicated they'd definitely or likely vote against it. The results were similar for a $130 million bond: 55 percent would vote for it — though there were 6 percent fewer "definite" yes voters — and 45 percent wouldn't.
Those results were gathered before respondents were informed of the district's rationale for considering a bond, such as the overcrowding of schools. After being given that information, the number of participants who said they would support a bond grew to 63 percent, while 37 percent said they'd still vote against it.
Scott Riding, a representative of the firm that conducted the survey, Y2 Analytics, said in the public meeting that the results are not a fair simulation of a bond campaign, however, because there was no opposition effort attempting to sway respondents' opinions. The district would be unlikely, he added, to maintain even the 56 percent level of support in a real-world campaign.
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Lindsey Ferrari, a co-founder of the communications and strategic planning firm Wilkinson Ferrari & Co., told the Board of Education that it's clear the lasting effects of a failed bond campaign in 2015 that divided the community continues to hamper the district's efforts this time around. She said conversations with community stakeholders revealed many people understand why the district needs to upgrade its facilities and believe the planning process this time has been better than in 2015 — but people still aren't clear about how and why the school board has reached specific decisions.
For months, the district has been planning to go to bond this fall and has even chosen a design for an expanded PCHS and established a timeline for the projects. Ferrari, however, cautioned the school board to slow down and perhaps delay the bond a year to engage in an extensive outreach campaign that could include things like informal neighborhood listening sessions.
"It's a heavy lift of a lot of education to make sure people understand," she said.
She later added: "A community like this, you can make a big difference in about a year. You do need a year, though."
Multiple members of the school board said the results of both the survey and the work of Wilkinson Ferrari & Co. concerned them. Petra Butler, for one, said little seems to have changed from 2016, when she encountered lukewarm support for a bond among constituents while campaigning for her seat.
"We're not doing something that we should be doing," she said.
Superintendent Ember Conley said another bond failure would be a consequential blow to the district — and its mission of providing the best possible education to students. She seemed resigned to one of the survey's key conclusions: A bond this fall would likely be a tough sell.
"If we do it with this information, we'll be waiting another three years because of another failed bond," she said.
Not everyone agreed, however. Board President Julie Eihausen, who served on the board that drew up the 2015 bond, said she worried about delaying the new effort a year. She has been a vocal proponent of pushing the bond forward because she sees it as what's best for students. At the meeting, she said that postponing the bond will also mean extending the life of Treasure Mountain Junior High School, which has been plagued by problems for years and costs the district hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to maintain.
By the end of the meeting, board members had indicated they were not yet ready to decide whether to move forward with a bond this fall. Their next public meeting is scheduled for August 1, and they have until mid-August to make a final determination.