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Santa Ana School Bond Issue Proponents Plot Offensive

It sounded more like a war room than a boardroom. More like generals and infantrymen than school officials and parents. Like soldiers before the battle, they one minute were eager and committed to the cause and, the next, worried about getting their heads blown off. A wise course. These days, when you’re thinking about asking the public for money, equal parts bravery and caution are definitely in order.

Welcome to the world of trying to sell school bond issues in the 1990s. A definite hard-hat area.

This hardy group gathered this week in the Santa Ana Unified School District boardroom, prepared to recommend that the school board submit a bond issue before voters next year.

The center of attention was Kent Price, whose Bay Area polling firm surveyed Santa Ana residents to see whether and how much they would be willing to spend in increased property taxes. Typically, the poll found the respondents in conflict with themselves: acknowledging by one response the need for new facilities and, by another, not wanting to pay a lot for them.

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“There are districts that can never get as much money as they need” for improvements, Price said. “People are just not that supportive.”

Santa Ana school officials say they need at least $75 million in improvements, but poll results shot that out of the water. Even generating half that much--about $38 million--would require raising property taxes $18 a year, and Price’s polling indicated that about 58% supported that. He reminded the group it would take a 66% voter approval to pass any bond issue that raised taxes.

The district says it needs the money to improve its technological capability. Supt. Al Mijares called it “a matter of technological survival for us.”

When I asked him later in the week what he meant, Mijares said, “There’s such a dearth in terms of technology in our system today. We’re in the middle of a knowledge explosion and information is coming at us at such a rapid, incredible pace that we don’t have the means to capture this information.”

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Price’s polling revealed a ray of light, in that regard: respondents seemed more inclined to pay for technology than for other suggested improvements.

Seizing on that, the advisory group debated how much to ask for. Eventually, it settled on a $15 annual increase as the magic figure above which they didn’t think voters would go. At that figure, Price said, the district could raise about $32 million. Anything less than $15, he argued, wouldn’t raise enough money to make significant improvements and wouldn’t be worth the effort. “At some point, you just have to say you’re going to go for it,” he said.

Even so, he told them, it would require a perfect campaign, perhaps costing $50,000 or more in private funds, to win voter approval for the $15 increase. In addition, it would require a significant voter registration effort aimed at parents of school-age children. “You’re going to have to engage people in ways that perhaps they’ve never been engaged before,” he said.

Even at the $15 threshold, Price said winning the election is “still a significant challenge. This is not a walk in the park.”

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Later in the week, I asked Edmundo Cardenas, a father of four and representing the Diamond Elementary School parent-teacher group at the meeting, how he thought a bond issue might fare.

He’s convinced the district needs the technology upgrade but worries that voters will be wary about spending money on what they think will go to an immigrant population--both legal and illegal. If certain forces appeal to people’s fears on that issue, he said, “we as parents have to reassure them that this benefits us all.”

“The one thing I know as a parent in the district is that nobody like to have their property tax raised, especially in this time, but I think we just have to,” Cardenas said. “We could keep the dropouts in school, but if we don’t give them the right tools at this moment, what good is it to keep them in school if they can’t get a job? This is mainly to give kids a better chance of succeeding.”

The group raised other vexing questions, such as the fact that both the Santa Ana school board and City Council have seats open next year. Would those races politicize a school bond campaign?

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Those answers will come. For now, the advisory group seems plenty hip about the impending battle.

For openers, I asked Mijares to assess the level of support for the school district. “I’ve never talked to a parent who said to me, ‘Oh, I’m not interested in my child’s education,’ or ‘I don’t think my kid profits by going to school.’ Never, ever, ever. From that standpoint, there’s support. If we can assure them the $15 they put into a kitty is going to directly benefit them, I think people will come along, but they have to see clearly the connection between every cent and what it’s going to buy.”

That’s the diplomatic way to say it.

The other way would be to say: Let the war begin.

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Dana Parsons’ columns appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.


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