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Survey finds 'hostility' toward District 833 tax hikes

District 833 residents would sustain school funding at current levels, but that support plummets as they consider emptying more from their pocketbooks, according to a survey released this week.

The survey, conducted last month by polling firm Decision Resources, probed district residents' attitudes on everything from general likes and dislikes to job performance ratings among the district's elected officials and workers.

However, the district - which formulated the questions for the pollster - spent the majority of the survey gauging residents' feelings on taxes and another levy referendum.

Decision Resources President Bill Morris told School Board members Thursday that if a new referendum is sought, the optimum per-pupil increase should be between $125 and $180.

"There would be support for that, that you might want to consider," Morris told the board, showing board members that about 60 percent of respondents were favorable to amounts within that spread.

He said history shows that referendum figures receiving about 60 percent support generally win at the polls.

The survey included a question gauging support for a $300 per-pupil levy increase.

The test results weren't smashing, Morris said, adding that the survey revealed "a moderately hostile tax climate." He said those feelings likely were exacerbated by the protracted state budget impasse, which led to a 20-day government shutdown.

About 45 percent of respondents indicated support for a $300 per-pupil increase, with an equal amount opposing it. Morris said the result indicates district residents think that amount "is going a bit too far."

District 833 Superintendent Mark Porter said the district submitted the $300 figure for the survey since it represents the halfway mark to the maximum possible levy increase.

"We wanted to test" the amount, he said.

Porter said the district will not seek a new referendum this fall - a possibility he had previously left open, depending on the outcome of the state budget. Since the state budget didn't gut K-12 funding, the district is not in a position to seek out new local dollars this year, Porter said.

"But we needed that data point," he said, referring to referendum-related information collected in the survey.

The survey spells out a mini tutorial - or at least erects figurative signposts - for how the district could design a referendum campaign.

The data includes information on respondents' awareness of school funding, willingness to support tax increases, a wish list for where new money could go and demographic breakdowns.

Districts can use all of that data to create campaigns targeting certain voters in certain areas with certain messages.

Such a campaign in District 833 could mean clearing some awareness-related hurdles, according to survey results. A full two-thirds of respondents said they were unaware the state provides 80 percent of district funding.

School Board member Ron Kath said it was "a little shocking" that such a large portion of the public didn't grasp the basic funding apparatus.

Support for teachers

The survey also revealed what Morris said were very defined perceptions of the district's educational product. On balance, it's very positive, he said.

"People are very, very laudatory about school district practices," Morris said.

The number of respondents who consider the quality of District 833 schools excellent propelled South Washington County into the top one-fourth of all Twin Cities metro districts, Morris said.

The survey also found rock-solid support for teachers. An open-ended question asked respondents what they liked most about the district. Twenty nine percent volunteered "good teachers."

"The teachers are highly valued here," Morris said.

Kath suggested Porter share that information with educators when they return to school for "welcome-back" sessions.

"I would hope we tee up some of that," Kath said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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