With his life and business partner Diane Traxler, Bill Morris has been involved in some 400 referenda campaigns. As principals in the 28-year-old market research concern Decision Resources, the couple fields a small army of pollsters and other data collectors whose gleanings help them counsel municipalities, school districts and others about the intersection between public policy and public opinion.
Their job is never simple, but lately it’s been especially challenging. Tomorrow a record 113 communities [PDF] will vote on whether to renew or extend their school levies, the extra dollars property owners agree to tax themselves to support local education.
Once upon a time, referendum dollars were used for big, capital projects and other onetime expenditures that schools were better off borrowing than budgeting for. And voters in wealthy districts have typically been willing to pony up a little more to support those great schools that in turn support property values.
This year, though, district officials are describing the referenda as survival levies, and warning about the funding precipice a no vote will create. At the same time, GOP state lawmakers have taken the unprecedented step of urging voters to reject the levy requests, arguing controversially that schools got new money in the last legislative session.
MinnPost recently happened across a poll [PowerPoint] conducted by Morris and Traxler that contained some red flags for levy proponents. The numbers themselves speak volumes, but we wanted to hear what the veteran pollsters themselves saw in them.
Even though it’s the 11th hour for Decision Resources, Morris took time last week to talk about tomorrow’s election. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
MinnPost: What could happen Tuesday and why?
Bill Morris: It’s really turbulent out there right now. Let’s talk about the referendum atmosphere. There are two trends going on. What we’re finding everywhere is first, the economy is having a dampening effect. That should be no surprise.
Usually, in terms of opposition versus support, people 55 and older tend to go against referenda. Under-55-year-olds tend to go for it. The 65-year-olds and over are going against it, 55-45.
The traditionally tough group has always been the 55- to 64-year-olds, where we consider it to be a real victory if we’re able to keep the margin against the referendum to lower than two-to-one. They’re not anti-schools, they’re just anti-taxes. Social Security is coming up, perhaps now they’re empty-nesters and they’re thinking it’s time for someone else to do the heavy lifting for schools.
This year, however, we’re seeing a real restlessness, for want of another term, among the 45- to 54-year-olds. The economy is really playing havoc with that group. Many of them have seen, if not a member of their household lose a job, perhaps someone down the street. They’re very, very well aware.
One of the questions we asked in our general quality of life surveys that we do for cities is, “Have you noticed any house in foreclosure or vacant in your immediate neighborhood?” That’s been steadily going up. All of that economic uncertainty then comes into play: “Can I really afford to support a referendum right now?”
So, age-wise and demographically, we’re seeing some slippage. And what that means is that we’re going to see much closer contests, or, in areas that have always passed things 52-48 or 51-49, we may in fact see some of those go under this time because of that one age group.
Let me turn to another demographic group, if I could: parents of school-age children in the public schools.
BM: Yes. We used to be able to count on an 80 percent to 20 percent split — even better in some places. That’s the core constituency for putting a referendum across the line.
Now we’re seeing that going as low as two-to-one, 66-34. That is a very significant drop. It’s not occurring everywhere, but we have noticed that the old line of 80 percent now, when we take a look at things, we feel that a district is doing very well if it’s holding above the mid-70s.
They are the primary constituency, but in addition, they’ve always provided very, very heavy majorities, enough to be able to at least partially offset what’s going on with the over-55-year-olds.
MP: You’re blowing my mind here. I have reported repeatedly that parents and seniors tend to be the people who pass a levy, the linchpin voters.
BM: The over 65-year-olds, it’s possible in some areas to bring them back. In fact, we’ve always considered it a victory if the polling is showing that it’s 50-50 straight-up tie.
A couple of districts aren’t like that. Roseville for example has a very, very supportive population over the age of 65. Richfield is another place. But those are kind of — rather than suburbs, I call them almost free-standing towns.
Richfield, because of the external pressures of the airport and freeways crossing every which way, has kind of a real community spirit.
I’ve always put Roseville down to the presence of Rosedale. It’s obviously a very good revenue provider to the city. But by the same token, there’s almost a sense of being inundated with folks from across the area. All of that industrial-retail section has the impact of really tying the rest of the community together.
Almost like, “We would be a nice residential suburb like” — oh let me think for a second, I’m trying to get demographics right on this — “Golden Valley, without that kind of light industrial and retail core.” It’s a mixed blessing, but it’s made up for by the cohesiveness of the neighborhoods.
MP: One of the other things I noticed in your poll is that teachers have a little bit of work to do reclaiming their place in the public’s heart.
BM: Absolutely. The biggest mistake I think that’s been made was when Education Minnesota decided to rebrand by adding the clause, “The teachers union.” That hurt. Most people, up until that time, really thought of the educational associations as being professional associations, not as being a union.
We did a survey [on a commercial in which Education Minnesota President] Tom Dooher is walking through the halls and suddenly teachers are coming out behind him. One teacher leaves the classroom, another teacher leaves the classroom and suddenly, “We’re the teachers union.”
In testing that, what we found was about 25 percent of those who had seen the commercial were saying, “Why were the teachers leaving their classes unattended?”
It boomeranged. When we tested Education Minnesota as a professional association, we got much higher ratings.
MP: Anyone else we distrust?
BM: I think most people are aware of the fact that something wrong happened in St. Paul. There’s a very, very low evaluation of the state Legislature with respect to public education.
[People are] getting contrary messages now in terms of the $50 that were given [to schools] per pupil. When we’ve tested that, it’s really muddled. People don’t know what to make of it.
But even with respect to the minutia, where we take a look at the ratings of the Legislature, they’re certainly very dissatisfied with the treatment of public education.
MP: So do you think the public is ready to hear discussion about the restructuring of school financing?
BM: I think finance really is a key issue, but you’re going to run directly into local control questions on that. There is distrust of state solutions, particularly in the high-achieving districts. High achievement doesn’t necessarily, but generally, indicates that they’re at the maximum of the levy limit.
We tested what I call the fuzzy lower limit. That is, let’s look at, say, the five high districts — I’d have to go back and take a look at the phrasing — and at making that lower limit some percentage of where those school districts are.
Taxpayers have said, “Yeah, we’re willing to put more in.” There are all sorts of solutions out there that people are at least willing to consider.
MP: What else are you seeing?
BM: We’ve been taking a look at the accountability question and teacher pay. The sticky issue isn’t so much pay and benefits like it was in Wisconsin, [and] the issue here isn’t so much rewarding good teachers.
What people are beginning to fixate on — and this is occurred slowly over the past five or six years — is what do you do about incompetent teachers?
There’s a perception out there that the system tolerates them, they just shift the problem around. The teacher is put elsewhere and that’s that. That’s going to be, I think, the match that will ignite a general discussion about compensation, tenure — the whole nine yards.