Exit poll gauges feedback over Scarborough school budget vote

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SCARBOROUGH — Jonathan Anderson and his family moved to Scarborough a year and a half ago from Virginia, in part because of the highly regarded school system. But since settling in town, Anderson has seen significant turmoil in the district.

The intensity of the controversy over the budget and school start times, along with the resignation of former Scarborough High School Principal David Creech,  surprised Anderson and led him to conduct an exit poll to explore why residents voted the way they did on the budget.

The relationship between residents and the school district is more distant in Virginia, which is why Anderson became interested in why the divisions were so apparent in Scarborough. After reaching out to groups active in town regarding school issues, and learning none were planning to conduct a poll on Election Day, Anderson took it upon himself. He and volunteers he recruited handed out questionnaires as residents exited the polls.

The pollsters asked the respondents’ ages, where they got their budget information and if they had children in the school, among other questions.

The participation rate wasn’t representative of those who turned out: 11 percent of the 6,000 residents who voted June 12 participated in the poll.

Voters approved the School Department’s $48.5 million school budget by 98 votes, 2,966 to 2,868. Of those polled, however, 67 percent, or 426 people, supported the budget, while 33 percent voted no.

A difference of less than 2 percent wasn’t surprising, given the controversy that has recently engulfed the schools – including the recall of three School Board members and calls for the superintendent’s resignation – and the town’s history of rejecting the school budget. Last year, it took three referendums before the budget was adopted. In 2015, residents defeated it twice; it took two attempts in 2012, and three in 2013.

Anderson is not affiliated with any group, but said he did vote in favor of the budget because he felt is was a wise investment in the community. “People seem to come back to Scarborough, and to create an environment where people want to be; education is a critical enabler for that,” said Anderson, whose son will enroll in kindergarten next year.

In April 2015, the Town Council voted to nix an advisory question on the budget that was included on the ballot, asking voters if the budget was too high, acceptable, or too low. Town Council Chairman William Donovan said the so-called “Goldilocks” question can be reinstated any time, but hasn’t been.

Anderson said he saw value in gaining information and hoped it would provide town officials with some insight and ideas on how to improve the budget process and communication.

The results of the poll do not reflect the full electorate of those who voted in the election, and it excludes absentee and early voters, and participation is skewed toward supporters of the budget, according to a disclaimer Anderson wrote at the beginning of the report.

Of people who responded to the exit poll, voters ages 36 to 55 were the main supporters of the budget, likely due to having children enrolled in the school system. According to the data collected, there was a higher likelihood to reject the budget as age increases.

Another interesting datum point was that parents with children enrolled in the high school voted against the budget at a higher rate compared to other schools. Twenty-eight percent of those who voted against the budget with children enrolled in the high school said concerns about the superintendent was the main driver of their decision, with concerns about elected officials coming in at 19 percent.

Anderson, according to the report, also said that proportionally, support for the recall was consistent between budget supporters and non-supporters.

The poll also asked how people learned of information about the school budget, with the top answers being local newspapers and social media.

Anderson, whose professional background is in program management and marketing, said he hypothesizes that there were more people who supported the budget that stopped to take the poll because the people volunteering at the table were mainly parents of students, perhaps making it appear as though those manning the table were in support of the budget. He said he also assumed people who voted no on the budget were likely frustrated by the process, and had a certain amount of fatigue associated with it.

Forty-one percent said the main reason they supported the budget was to support the schools, according to respondents.

Reasons to not support the budget were more varied, with 13 percent saying it was too high, and another 13 percent claiming taxes are too high. Twelve percent said they didn’t trust officials, from the town council to the superintendent, to the school board. Anderson said the reasons why people did not support the budget was richer in the diversity of opinion than the residents who voted in favor.

Another 12 percent had concerns about the superintendent’s leadership.

Anderson said he sent results to the board of education and the town council last week, and received some feedback on the study, calling online comments on the results “mixed.”

A message seeking comment about the poll from Scarborough Board of Education Chairwoman Mary Starr was not returned.

Donovan said he appreciated the effort put into the polling activity and the report, but said he could not draw any firm conclusions from it.

In response to criticism Anderson saw on social media that claims the results and report were biased, he said, “It is what it is; we need a dialogue,” adding that it’s more fruitful than a “they are wrong” perspective.

Anderson said he hopes groups in town will organize the exit polling next year, saying he spent a considerable amount of time and money on the project, which was an undertaking he underestimated.

Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or at jlaaka@theforecaster.net. Follw her on Twitter @JulietteLaaka.

An exit poll organized by a private citizen hopes to provide insight in why people voted they way they did in reference to the school budget.

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