RSF School continues information gathering on possible 2018 bond

The Rancho Santa Fe School District board continues to look toward addressing future needs, as it works on updating the facilities master plan and explores the possibility of a general obligation bond in 2018.

In a 4-1 vote on Nov. 2, the board approved forming a non-standing advisory committee to conduct interviews of potential architects to refresh the master plan. The request for qualified proposals for architects has gone out and responses are due back by Nov. 14. Interviews would be conducted the week after Thanksgiving.

Board member Sarah Neal voted against forming the committee until after the board holds a strategic planning session and gets a full grasp of the district’s facilities needs.

Board Vice President Tyler Seltzer said that having the dialogue with the architects about the condition of the gym, no matter what decision it leads to, will be helpful. He volunteered to serve on the advisory committee along with new board member Jon Yonemitsu.

The board’s team building and planning session is upcoming as the board approved a contract for a facilitator Suzette Lovely to work with them. Neal elected to abstain from the vote on the facilitator as she is opposed to the process at this time. Last month, Neal was also the sole board member to vote against the feasibility study for the bond, as well as issuing a request for qualifications and proposals for the architectural firm.

As the board continues its information gathering on a potential bond effort, they heard presentations from two consulting groups, Tom Shepard and Associates and TBWB Strategies and TrueNorth Research, that could potentially help with community outreach in the form of a survey and then help with advocacy and a campaign if a bond moves forward to the November 2018 ballot.

To pass a bond, the district would need 55 percent approval. The last time they ran a survey about a bond for a new school gym in 2014, 54.3 percent were opposed to any gym project and then-Superintendent Lindy Delaney advised against going forward with a 2016 effort.

A survey would be required to gauge if there is interest now and what kind of outreach would be required for residents to understand the district’s facilities needs.

Tom Shepard has run bond campaigns for 35 years, including Rancho Santa Fe’s Prop E in 2008, which passed with 71 percent of the vote — the $34 million to build new the new R. Roger Rowe School. The firm was also involved with the successful Prop JJ in neighboring Solana Beach School District and helped conduct the first gym survey in 2014.

Shepard said in a small community like Rancho Santa Fe, one of the challenges is getting an adequate sample size. A traditional phone survey would be enhanced with online and mail-in so every resident has the opportunity to participate.

Because of the district demographics, Shepard said it’s important to ensure that they are surveying all residents and voters and not restrict to just one portion of the community. In 2014, 75.9 percent of those surveyed did not have elementary school-aged children and 81.2 percent did not have middle school-aged children.

“If support isn’t there I will give you that advice and do so without hesitation,” Shepard said. “Rancho Santa Fe is a unique community and there are many strongly held opinions among your constituents. As a result, a small group that strongly disagrees could easily derail a bond effort.”

He said if they moved forward, his firm would help the district figure out a path where everyone is “at least satisfied and not actively opposing the measure,” which he has successfully done in Rancho Santa Fe in the past.

Jared Boigon, a partner with TBWB Strategies, said a certain percentage of voters will never vote to increase taxes and the key in passing bonds for school districts is consensus, to develop a proposal that mirrors the priorities of voters. His firm successfully passed bonds for the San Dieguito Union High School District and Mira Costa Community College in 2012.

“This is a challenging place to have this conversation,” Boigon said. “There are people here who really understand bonds, they are going to ask tough questions and read school budgets and really look at what you are trying to accomplish here.”

Boigon said this isn’t a situation where the district will be able to “tactic” its way into winning an election — “To get to 55 percent in this community, it’s going to be about transparency, dialogue and winning the argument and making a compelling case that they can support.”

Tim McLarney, president of True North Research, who would conduct the voter survey in partnership with TBWB, said his firm has the highest verifiable success in California with 94 percent pass rate for school bonds and parcel taxes since 2008, and 100 percent success in the 2016 election with 45 measures and 45 wins. “We are not cavalier about telling clients to move forward with measures,” McLarney said.

McLarney, a R. Roger Rowe parent, said they are careful about interpreting poll results, taking into account external factors such as timing, bond amount, tax rate, competing ballot issues and potential controversies in order to give “good solid advice” about taking on a bond effort. “The last thing the board wants is to invest in a process that doesn’t have a reasonable chance of success,” McLarney said.

McLarney said one of Rancho Santa Fe’s biggest challenges is the school’s “curb appeal”— the facility is newly built and looks great, he said, so it’s up to the district to really communicate what its program needs are as well as match it with community priorities.

For a measure to be placed on the November 2018 ballot, the district would have to have ballot language to the San Diego County Registrar of Voters by August 2018. The firms recommended that outreach would begin this winter so the district would ideally begin drafting a measure by February or March.

According to Superintendent David Jaffe, the board will provide direction on the next steps at the next board meeting, which may include requesting the district bring forward a formal proposal from both firms, one firm, or neither.

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