Well over two thirds of voters in Palo Alto will support a bond measure to raise money for schools even if they don't know why the money is needed or how it will be used, according to a new survey presented at Tuesday's school board meeting.
Board members also discussed the proposed $775 million of needed school improvements that a $350 million bond measure would leverage. The plan is to replace existing bonds with no tax increase, according to school district officials.
To measure whether voters would support a bond measure to update school facilities, the school district commissioned market research firm Gene Bregman and Associates last year.
Respondents rated the need for money as high but were hard-pressed to remember the last bond measure or cite its effects, Bregman said at Tuesday's meeting.
"There's really no awareness right now of the problems that need to be addressed by the bond, which makes it even more amazing that the numbers are so high," he said.
Board and staff also reviewed details of the bond measure that would enable a sweeping $775 million facilities upgrade to renovate and modernize Palo Alto's aging schools.
Much of the bond measure's $350 million could be matched in state aid, Chief Business Officer Bob Golton said.
The district would extend the current bond measure without increasing the tax rate, he said.
And the community is inclined to vote for it, according to Bregman's survey.
While a whopping 82 percent of the 400 respondents agreed that the city's schools are doing a good job, 72 percent said schools need more money.
Respondents would support a $350 million bond measure, 74 percent said, a figure that climbed to 81 percent if property tax rates do not increase.
Yet just over half of the respondents either didn't remember or didn't know how the district spent money from the last bond measure in 1995 -- implying that even without the burden of proof voters trust the district to spend funds well.
"There's an assumption that … [if you're the Palo Alto school district you're going to spend the money well," Bregman said.
The implication was especially surprising given the distrust of public institutions that surveys usually reveal, he said.
"Whenever you talk about any government entity spending money the results usually are well below [this survey. … People have a tendency to assume that if it's a government entity, they're not spending the money well," he said.
A recent study commissioned by the Palo Alto City Council found that voter distrust could inhibit plans to build a new public-safety building.
But Bregman cautioned against overconfidence.
Responses to a section about specific school needs were strikingly low, demonstrating substantial ignorance about school conditions, he said.
The district should educate constituents about facilities needs to ensure the bond measure's success on the ballot, he said.
"People don't know why you're doing this, so between now and March, which is when you vote to put this on the June ballot, it would do you well to do a lot of education with the community," he said.
And there is plenty to be done, according to the bond measure proposal the board reviewed after Bregman's presentation.
The proposal lists extensive upgrades, from replacing the swimming pool at Gunn High School for about $4 million to modernizing Internet technology at elementary schools for about $96,000.
Yet the list of improvements was too long to absorb all at once, Golton said. He and other district staff asked for board feedback about the timeline for the bond measure.
"This is a rough draft," Superintendent Kevin Skelly said, asking board members to take time to formulate opinions about individual items.
The timeline calls for community feedback about the list until Dec. 14, followed by a January board meeting to discuss feedback and a February vote on when to place the bond measure before voters.
Board members said they liked the timeline and looked forward to commenting on particular projects at future meetings.
But board member Mandy Lowell had early advice for staff: to focus on existing needs rather than tying planned expenditures closely to predictions.
Predictions can quickly become outdated, she said, citing previous studies that called for machines for microfiche reading, entire rooms for enormous computers and a pool for the female synchronized swimming team.
Yet she didn't shun emphasis on the future entirely. Visions of potential greatness will help convince voters of the need for the bond measure, she said.
"In our area, people would vote not because [schools are a huge problem but because of the other -- it's the benefit that could come," she said.
The district should "sell it by sizzle," she said.
The proposed project list is available online at http://pausd.org/community/board/downloads/brd_packet/item_013.pdf .