Survey shows division over school projects

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The Top 10

Here is a look at the top 10 choices of print and online survey respondents regarding potential projects in the Walla Walla School District:

  1. Complete modernization of Walla Walla High School, similar to the February 2013 bond issue: 130 votes
  2. Do nothing at this time: 128.
  3. Science building modernization: 79.
  4. A three-phase approach (three separate bond measures) to complete modernization: 36.
  5. A two-phase approach (two separate bond measures) to complete modernization: 29.
  6. Replace Lincoln High School with new school at Fourth Avenue location: 27.
  7. Renovate Lincoln High School on site: 26.
  8. Academic building modernization: 15.
  9. Career/technical education modernization: 7.
  10. Modernize Berney Elementary School: 5.

What they had to say

Here is a representative sampling of comments written on paper ballots submitted in conjunction with the Union-Bulletin’s recent school facilities survey.

“Education is a good place for tax dollars!”

“No. 1 priority — renovate Lincoln High School on site. Lincoln should (be) first as the most structurally/code deficient (school), hands down. It is an elitist attitude by the board (to renovate) Wa-Hi first. Take care of the high risk/safety items first, which (are at Lincoln).”

“I would like to have the (Wa-Hi) project done, but I think it should be completed in stages.”

While my wife and I both voted yes for the Feb. 12, 2013, Wa-Hi bond, we did so reluctantly.

“The reasons we voted yes are:

  • There are definitely improvements needed at Wa-Hi.
  • The proposal was well-explained.
  • The examples of improvements made at other school districts were very compelling.”

“We almost didn’t vote yes because:

  • We wondered what were some of the district’s other capital improvement needs and when the next school bond issue would be coming up.
  • The $22 million project development cost (46 percent of the cost of the construction) seemed high.
  • The list of improvements at Wa-Hi was a mix of musts and wants.
  • There was no discussion on efforts to control cost of the project.”

“Education is vital to our young people!!!”

“Modernize ... not complete redo.”

“Do nothing at this time. Pay off current bonds first!”

“Can’t trust the School Board to use the money as explained. The Board won’t do what they say.”

“Pie in the sky. Pay off our loans first. Stick to upkeep at this time. Retired on fixed income. Own my home. Taxes are outrageous.”

“We cannot afford any more taxes.”

“I thought that the plan was not good, but that the great need was more important than a poor plan.”

“I didn’t like the plan, but the longer we wait the more costly it will be.”

“I would like to know how the College Place (high school) will impact Wa-Hi.”

“Some improvements were necessary, but I did not think all that was in the plan was necessary.”

“I voted yes, but reluctantly. We can absorb the tax increase, but many can not.”

“Time for the project to get started even if the price was too high.”

“First school bond ever in 50 years that I voted no. Asked voters for unwise amounts of money for unnecessary items.”

“I did not vote (in the February election). Your proposal was too costly for me. I believe Wa-Hi needs to be modernized and I would support a scaled-down proposal, perhaps implemented over a several-year schedule.”

“I did not vote for the Wa-Hi bond mostly because of the way our school district handled excess funds from the Edison School Bond. The School Board and district administrators were disrespectful of taxpayers, running a bond for one purpose and using a considerable amount of bond dollars on an entirely different area.”

“First and foremost we need to maintain our buildings. Allowing them to fall into disrepair is a waste of the funds spent to build them. All (the potential projects) need to be done as historic preservation, restoration, renovation projects. No tearing down. Preserve, restore and modernize the infrastructure. Perhaps the bond should be X amount of dollars spent annually on restoration, renovation and maintenance forever.”

“(A two-phase approach at Wa-Hi) would take too long. Replace Lincoln. They’re doing a great job and deserve it. We want them to do well and help those kids.”

“Supposedly Walla Walla is an “excellent place to raise children,” but our high schools are outdated and expensive to keep up because they’re old. Almost all of our neighboring communities voted this year to update their schools and/or build new ones — except Walla Walla.”

“Our forefathers built sturdy, good schools in this town 100-plus years ago. It’s our turn to update whatever needs it most, and do as good a job as reasonably as possible, taking advantage of the best economic time to fund the projects, which we’re told was NOW.”

Odds and ends

While the results were polarized as far as priorities go, there were several areas of accord in the survey.

“Fair” was the most common choice when asked about the condition of the buildings at Walla Walla High School. This was true of both print and online surveys.

Most everyone — nearly 85 percent — thought they had enough information to make a decision, and even more — 92 percent — said they voted.

People who said they voted yes overwhelmingly — 78.7 percent — said the reason was that facility needs were great.

Reasons given for voting no were less uniform. “The public can’t afford the debt in this economy” was cited by 43.1 percent of “no” voters, while “cost was too much for me personally” received 29.1 percent of votes, and “didn’t like the plan” netted 19.3 percent. Just 18 people chose “Wa-Hi doesn’t need improvement,” about 8.5 percent of respondents.

Of the 537 total responses, 289 offered contact information for the drawing for free groceries. The drawing, which used a random number generator, needed 20 numbers drawn to pick three winners.

It is worth noting that a few print surveys were discarded as they were obviously the work of the same person. It is possible that people completed the survey online more than once, although that would require a modicum of fuss to get around security features intrinsic to the survey management website.

There is no way to be certain people who completed the online survey did not also complete the printed version, but demographics of the two sets of respondents suggest any double-ups were rarer as opposed to more common.

For example, respondents to the print survey reported being about 58.5 percent female, and nearly 70 percent reported being over age 60. Respondents to the online survey reported a nearly exact split in gender — 118 female, 117 male and three non-respondents to that question. Ages in the online survey were much more diverse, with about 20 percent of respondents in each of the 30- to 39-year-old, 40-49 and 50-59 age slots and about 29 percent reporting being over 60.

WALLA WALLA — Should the School District bring voters a proposal for a total overhaul of Walla Walla High School, or a smaller project, or just let it ride for a while?

We asked that in a survey that wrapped up earlier this month, and more than 500 people answered.

The results don’t appear to be a clarion call for one course of action, as no single choice received enough support to imply it would be successful at the polls. This is true of “do nothing at this time,” too.

The top three priorities of survey respondents were:

Complete overhaul of Wa-Hi: 130 top-choice votes, or 25.84 percent of the total.

Do nothing at this time: 128 votes, or 25.45 percent.

Modernization of the science building at Wa-Hi: 89 votes, or 17.69 percent.

The falloff from there was significant. The next five projects on the priority list were:

Total overhaul of Wa-Hi in three phases: 36 first-choice votes, or 7.15 percent.

Two-phase overhaul of Wa-Hi: 29 voters, or 5.77 percent.

Replacement of Lincoln with a new school at the Fourth Avenue site: 27 votes, or 5.37 percent.

Renovation of Lincoln: 26 votes, or 5.17 percent.

Modernization of the academic building: 9 votes, or 3.41 percent.

The long and short of this is that no clear mandate emerged from the survey, but let’s dig deeper.

Print vs. online survey

We ran our survey in two forms, one online and one in print. The online survey received 253 responses, and the print version received 283, for a total of 536.

Responses from the two sets of respondents were quite different from each other, as were the demographics — for example, people who filled out the print survey were on the whole older than those doing the online survey.

Online respondents offered these top priorities:

Complete overhaul of Wa-Hi: 89 votes out of 253, or 35.18 percent.

Science building modernization: 37 votes, or 14.62 percent.

Do nothing at this time: 31 votes, or 12.25 percent.

Three-phase overhaul: 25 votes, or 9.88 percent.

Two-phase overhaul: 17 votes, or 6.72 percent.

No other project inched above 5 percent support as a respondent’s top choice.

On the flip side, print respondents offered these top priorities:

Do nothing at this time: 101 votes out of 257 who filled out the list of priorities, or 39.29 percent.

Science building modernization: 50 votes, or 19.46 percent.

Complete overhaul of Wa-Hi: 34 votes, or 13.23 percent.

No other projects gained significant support in the print survey.

Wasn’t this top three?

We asked print and online respondents to indicate their top three choices.

With print submissions, the choices were easy to discern. For the online survey, a limitation of the way results were tallied means we can’t be certain of people’s second and third choices for three of the priorities — complete modernization in one, two or three phases. In other words, if a respondent chose “site modernization” as their first priority and “three-phase modernization” as their second choice, we weren’t able to be sure of the latter vote.

This limitation only affected the three complete-modernization options, however.

The online survey appeared to show deeper support for modernization of Wa-Hi’s science and academic buildings and for renovation or rebuilding of Lincoln than the first-choice votes show. This is true for the print survey as well. No other projects on the list came near these in aggregate vote totals.

Looking specifically at those four choices, in online and print surveys:

Modernization of the science building received 197 votes total (89 first choice, 62 second choice and 46 third choice).

Renovate Lincoln received 128 votes (26 first, 60 second and 42 third)

Replace Lincoln with new school received 107 votes (27 first, 52 second and 28 third).

Modernization of the academic building received 99 votes (15 first, 47 second and 37 third).

In the same way, support for overhauling all of Wa-Hi in one, two or three phases received broader support than is seen in the first-priority votes. Looking only at print surveys:

Complete overhaul in one project received 44 votes total (34 first, 6 second and 4 third).

Two-phase overhaul received 48 votes (11 first, 23 second, 14 third).

Three-phase overhaul received 40 votes (11 first, 9 second, 20 third).

Strengths and limitations

Any survey, scientific or not, has weaknesses. While ours was not scientific — participants were self-selected — several aspects of it should contribute to its usefulness as a predictor of actual future votes:

Voting in an election, like our survey, is a self-selecting activity, and it involves filling out a ballot and mailing it in or taking it to a drop-off station.

Voting turnouts as a percentage tend to be higher among older people, the same people who filled out our survey.

A similar survey we administered in 2007, also not scientific, accurately predicted voting outcomes. Results of the Cost of Community survey showed strong support for:

Fixing the streets: Voters, as well as the city of Walla Walla, have passed measures to pay for increased road work.

A new police station: Voters approved a bond that resulted in the construction of a new station on Moore Street.

A new high school for the Valley: While the survey was aimed primarily at Walla Walla, the actual outcome has been that College Place voters signed off on a new high school for the Valley, and since 2007, Lincoln High has become a more significant option as well.

A city pool or aquatic center: Survey respondents were divided on this subject, many of them taking the time to annotate their ballots with notes about how they would support a pool but not an aquatic center. Proposed aquatic centers have failed at the ballot box in the intervening years.

A new homeless shelter: With the founding of the STEP Women’s Shelter in 2009, another top priority was checked off the list.

In the world of surveys and studies, you can’t do much better than results that are predictive of behavior, and in that case, the survey was more accurate than we could have hoped for.

The overall number of respondents, more than 500, lends weight to the results, as do the demographics of the respondents, but at the end of the day, only a vote that is in the books will tell whether this survey predicted voting outcomes.

Holly Nelson, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology, consulted on this survey and helped to interpret the results. Alasdair Stewart can be reached at alasdairstewart@wwub.com or 526-8311.

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