Columbus school levy too close to call

The Columbus Dispatch – October 27, 2013

The outcome of the Columbus school levy in next week’s election still hangs in the balance.

A poll by Saperstein Associates for The Dispatch shows that 45 percent of likely voters in Ohio’s largest school district support the levy, 44 percent oppose the 9.01-mill measure and the rest are undecided.

“The battle will be on turnout rather than convincing the undecideds,” said Martin D. Saperstein, head of the Columbus public-opinion firm, which conducted the district’s polling during its last levy campaign, in 2008.

In fact, Saperstein calls undecided poll respondents “closet ‘no’ voters.”

That’s because the undecided voters look and sound a lot like those who oppose the levy, especially in open-ended comments about the proposal.

When Saperstein divvies up the undecideds by those responses, the overall outcome flips: 46 percent back the levy,

48 percent are against, and 6 percent are truly undecided.

“It’s too close to call,” he said. “In the final analysis, it will be how voters feel about the levy and turn out to vote. … The final tally of votes may reflect the campaign as much as it reflects the community’s feelings about the levy.”

And that pro-levy campaign has a powerful weapon — beyond the six-figure contributions of major local employers: Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman.

With a stunning 76 percent favorability rating, Coleman’s highly visible leadership of the campaign has at least neutralized negative sentiments voters have for Columbus schools.

Examples of the contrast with Coleman’s high standing:

• Just 32 percent have a favorable impression of former Superintendent Gene Harris, just 36 percent are positive about the Columbus school board and 43 percent feel that way about Columbus City Schools overall.

• Forty-one percent say that when city schools officials communicate about the levy, they believe them.

• A bare majority, 52 percent, say Columbus schools will improve if the levy passes; 35 percent say the schools will decline if the levy fails.

• Sixty-two percent say Columbus schools should have made all the cuts the district could before going to voters for more money.

“It’s hard to argue that the mayor’s support isn’t responsible for the support the levy is getting and, potentially, to a significant extent,” Saperstein said. “He’s just been incredibly strong over an incredibly long period of time.”

The poll shows 51 percent say Coleman’s support gives them confidence that levy revenue would be spent wisely.

Voters also back a companion issue to pay for an independent auditor for Columbus schools by 13 points, 48 percent to 35 percent.

The levy campaign shows the community is generally split. Those who will vote yes say more money will improve educational quality, education is important, or they want to support schools. The “no” votes are coming from those who say they distrust or disapprove of district leadership, funds are mismanaged, more money will not help schools improve, or they cannot afford the levy.

“It’s just taxes and paying more. I’m on a fixed income, and it’s hard to make ends meet if everything keeps going on,” said Jack Rosenfeld, 71, of the East Side, sharing a sentiment expressed by many thinking with their wallets. “When it comes to the schools, I don’t really think they’re getting the education they should get. So I don’t know if putting more money into it is going to make them teach any (kids) any more.”

Even undecided voter Jon Heckendorn, 29, said, “That’s a lot of money,” which “will play a big part” in how he decides. The Northwest Side resident said the school district should have asked for a more-modest amount and come back later with results, “not just ‘give us money.’??”

But John Guroy, 63, a semi-retiree from the Northwest Side, said, “I have no problem paying for education. I don’t believe in doing things on the cheap.”

Guroy, who still referees sports, had two sons graduate from Columbus schools in the past decade. He said he doesn’t want to mimic parents who turn against the schools after their children graduate.

“Once their kids are out, they vote against it. I don’t want to do that. … If the mayor were against it, I’d still say Columbus needs better schools and we need to compete and kids need a good education.”

Heather Walker, 43, of Clintonville, said she will vote for the levy even though “I’m not happy with the amount.

“I have mixed feelings about approving it for that amount of money. I know that they have a lot of good ideas in place for what they want to do,” said Walker, whose daughter goes to Salem Elementary.

“I’m not happy with the charter schools. They’ve just been a big failure, and I’m not sure throwing money at the problem is going to help anything.”

Some levy critics based their opposition on the estimated $8.5 million a year that would flow to “high-performing” charter schools under the levy. Overall, 40 percent backed that idea and 50 percent opposed it. However, only 1 in 5 said Columbus schools provide a better education than charter schools do.

But the proposed use of another $8.5 million annually for preschool was extremely popular, with 73 percent in favor.

“If I were running the campaign, the only thing I would talk about is pre-K,” Saperstein said. “ To me, this is a home-run issue.”

Issue 50 on the Nov. 5 ballot seeks a 9.01-mill levy that would cost district homeowners an additional $315 per $100,000 of home value, a 24?percent increase from the school tax that an owner already pays. It would allocate 1 mill, or about $8.5 million a year, to high-performing charter schools and another mill to expanding pre-kindergarten education. The largest portion, 3.1 mills, would go toward the district’s operating budget, which includes teacher pay. It also would fund new computers and finance bonds for new and renovated buildings.

The Saperstein poll of 803 likely voters in the Columbus school district, via land lines and cellphones, was conducted Oct. 7-19 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points. Results were slightly weighted to conform to known demographics. The response rate was 41 percent.