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New Burbank Unified parcel tax would result in another close vote, research firm contends

New Burbank Unified parcel tax would result in another close vote, research firm contends
Burbank residents acknowledged a need for more local school funding and agreed on protecting teachers and preventing cuts. Not enough want to pay, however. (Steve Greenberg)

A nine-day survey conducted with potential local voters regarding a possible parcel tax for the Burbank Unified School District has left district officials at a familiar crossroads.

For the second time in just over a year, the Los Angeles-based research firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, known as FM3, presented the local school board with plenty of polling data about a possible tax during a special meeting Tuesday.

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District officials are hoping a new tax would succeed where Measure QS failed. The district’s previous 10-cents-per-square-foot fee on real property would have generated around $9 million annually at a cost of $170 per year for the average Burbank property owner.

Measure QS fell short of the Proposition 13-mandated two-thirds majority, or 66.7%, by 938 votes in November. The proposed tax received 25,413 votes in support.

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FM3 projected last year the measure would receive 65% ‘yes’ votes and would not pass.

Burbank Unified officials now must decide whether or not to push for another parcel tax and then whether that measure would go on a ballot in either the upcoming March primary or November general election in 2020.

“There’s a lot of information to digest before we make our next move,” said Roberta Reynolds, president of the Burbank Unified school board. “We need to dig into the information.”

While Burbank residents acknowledged a need for more local school funding, protecting teachers and preventing cuts, only in one instance did enough voters indicate they would pay to support such issues.

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FM3 interviewed 813 registered voters in Burbank from April 30 through May 8 using online surveys, cellphones and landlines.

The interviews were conducted in English, Spanish and Armenian and asked residents about their attitudes about several topics, including the general community, a potential parcel tax, ballot measure wording and a possible sunset clause for the tax.

Like last year, FM3 asked residents recently if they would prefer a $365 flat-fee-per-parcel tax or a return to the 10-cents-per-square-foot tax.

Neither option crossed the 66.7% threshold as 65% of residents said they would either definitely, probably or lean in favor of the 10-cent option, while that percentage was 58% for the flat rate.

FM3 asked the same question last year in the run-up to Measure QS, with 65% wanting the 10-cent tax and 60% choosing the $365 option.

“In focus groups, we find a sense of fairness with this with many voters,” said FM3 representative John Fairbank, who presented the findings, about the 10-cent measure.

“The small guys are paying based on square footage compared to the larger properties,” he added.

The percentage of voters leaning toward, probably or definitely voting ‘no’ was 36% for $365 a year and 30% for the 10-cents option.

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While there was a 5% to 6% undecided vote in both polls, Fairbank said he did not think those voters would swing to ‘yes.’

“They probably are going to trend closer to the ‘nos,’” Fairbank said.

Since Measure QS’s defeat, one of the beliefs held by several backers, including school Supt. Matt Hill, was a lack of information about the district’s financial needs ultimately hurt Burbank Unified’s chances.

That theory was behind an awareness campaign in April.

However, knowledge of the district’s financial status didn’t appear to sway voters much.

Those in favor of the $365 flat tax saw their percentage increase from 58% to 62%, while the 10-cent camp only rose by three percentage points to 68% after voters were informed about the district’s financial problems. But that 68% does surpass the two-thirds requirement.

What could be damaging again, however, is a spirited opposition campaign.

Last year, a trio of former board presidents, led by Larry Applebaum, urged voters to not support the proposed parcel tax.

FM3 estimates a similar opposition campaign against a future parcel tax bid could cause a 2%-to-6% drop in the polls in the 2020 elections.

What voters in FM3’s most-recent polling did agree upon was the quality of Burbank Unified’s job and the need for more money.

Though the numbers dropped 1% from last year, 63% of possible voters still thought the district was doing an excellent or good job.

Voters overwhelmingly recognized the need for additional funding in the recent polling, with 71% identifying either great or some need, which was up from 65% the year before.

In terms of priorities, providing a science, technology, engineering and math education, otherwise known as STEM, was most important to those interviewed, with 93% supporting that education option.

Retaining and attracting quality teachers came in second at 91%, while 88% wanted their students prepared for college or careers.

FM3’s polling also disputed a lack of a termination date or sunset clause, listed as a main reason Measure QS just missed passing during a “dissection” meeting in February, was negative.

FM3 asked residents in its recent nine days of polling if they preferred a parcel tax that could be ended by voters or one with a 12-year sunset, as is the case with Los Angeles Unified’s proposed Measure EE parcel tax in a special election on Tuesday.

Interviewees told FM3 they preferred no sunset clause compared with a 12-year clause, coming in at 50% and 35% respectively.

Last year’s Measure QS defeat cost district employees a one-time 3% pay raise, while the district also made cuts to several programs, eliminated three positions, including two directors, in an attempt to close a $3.5-million structural deficit.

Herculean fundraising by several community charities helped save the three teaching jobs, but those efforts only secured funding for the upcoming school year.

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