Measure MB campaign  focuses on outreach

Measure MB co-chair Jen Fenton was meeting with prospective voters at the Joslyn Community Center recently when a senior citizen burst into the room hellbent on getting some answers. In her hands, she carried a parcel tax exemption form she’d received in the mail.

“She was flailing her exemption in the air, angry about the world,” Fenton recalled. “She went on for 10 or 15 minutes while I stood there with a smile on my face.”

When the woman finished, Fenton calmly addressed each issue she’d raised. The woman apparently received the answers she’d sought. She gave Fenton a hug.

“Thank you,” she said. “I am voting for the measure.”

It’s an interaction Fenton said has played out repeatedly door-to-door, even with “empty-nesters” and others who don’t have kids in the Manhattan Beach Unified School District.

“That one-on-one contact is so important,” Fenton said.

Polling numbers for a proposed parcel tax showed the razor’s edge challenge Measure MB faces as supporters campaign for the June 5 ballot measure.

The poll, conducted last November by the TBWB consulting firm as the Manhattan Beach Unified School District Board of Education considered the feasibility of such a measure, showed that 61 percent of residents supported a parcel tax to help fund local schools —  a number that jumped to 64 percent when prospective voters were given information about the district’s financial predicament. Passage of Measure MB will require 66 percent approval.

The campaign for Measure MB is focused on boots on the ground —  more than phone banking. Campaign organizers believe the key to success for this election is one-on-one contact because it allows prospective voters to better understand the need for a parcel tax. This is especially true for seniors, who are expected to be a disproportionate part of the electorate in what is traditionally a low turnout election cycle. Seniors are also perceived to have less incentive to support the parcel tax, which would cost $225 annually per parcel and generate $3 million annually for MBUSD because they no longer have kids in the district. Measure MB offers seniors an exemption from the tax, but as the woman who spoke to Fenton exemplified —  getting a tax exemption form in the mail without further explanation can rile folks as much as comfort them.

Nearly 100 volunteers are working on behalf of Measure MB. And while many of the volunteers were part of the successful campaign for Measures C and EE in 2016, this campaign faces different challenges and utilizing different strategies. The 2016 election coincided with the Presidential election, and so voter turnout wasn’t a problem; thus the focus on the most reliable voters of all, seniors.

Co-chair Jeff Serota said the pollsters had expected seniors to be disinclined to support Measure MB, but seniors who canvassers have been talking to have upended this expectation.

“The state has done a great job of making it easy for seniors to opt out of tax like this, and obviously the district here in Manhattan Beach is fine having seniors exempt, but what I have been shocked by is that many of our canvassers going door-to-door have talked to seniors who are not opting out,” Serota said. “They clearly see the quality of our schools as driving the vibrancy of the community.”

The campaign is both doing more door-to-door work and doing so in a more focused manner, largely because campaign technology has improved. The campaign has its own app, which allows “turf captains” to identify likely supportive voters and match them with canvassers in their neighborhoods. It means that canvassers can work more efficiently, which Serota said has been really critical in attracting volunteers.

“We’d always like a bigger army,” he said. “This is a very volunteer-centered community, but the reality is it tends to be same people who are involved. So we are on an eight-week project trying to get them committed, pulling them away from something else.”

But the efficiency of operations means time on the ground is more effective.

“It’s crazy what these one-on-one contacts can really do, how impactful it can be,” said Fenton, who oversees ground operations. “If a volunteer can just give me an hour, that can actually move the mark.”

The early results have been encouraging, Serota said.

“We have spoken to over 2,000 people,” he said. “The numbers show that about 85 or 90 percent are supportive, so the support is there. You talk pros and cons of the issue with people, and three are not many cons, just pros.”

Of course, Serota emphasized, those numbers also reflect that canvassers are talking to those already identified as likely supporters. “Now the issue is, will these people vote?” he said.

“These types of measures are always run extremely close,” said Farnaz Flechner, the executive director of the Manhattan Beach Education Foundation. “So having 67 percent people in favor of this is really going to take tremendous effort. It’s going to come down to every single person who supports it getting to the polling booth. These kinds of elections often come down to 100 votes or less, whether or not they pass.”

Serota said that beyond campaign strategy, the facts on the ground are what has really animated support —  that is, the case for Measure MB. MBUSD, through a combination of historical circumstance and ongoing state policy, is one of the lowest funded school districts on a per-pupil basis not only in the state but in the nation. Through MBEF and out-of-classroom budget cuts, the district has thus far managed to keep its educational programs largely intact. But MBEF, which contributes $6 million a year to the district, has begun to level off after setting new records every year, recent changes at the state level that helped many districts did very little to help MBUSD, and costs continue to increase. If Measure MB is unsuccessful, the district has plans in place that would require laying off dozens of teachers.

Nearly every other high-achieving school district in the state has passed a parcel tax —  including Palos Verdes at $446 per year, South Pasadena at $376, and Santa Monica at $346 annually. Serota said the logic is hard to escape: there are no more remaining avenues for the district to keep cuts out of the classroom.

“I think when folks spend time and parse through financial statements they realize the district has done an unbelievable job doing more with less,” Serota said. “Revenues are generally flat, and things cost more every year, just operation costs. That wedge continues to get smaller and smaller.”

Superintendent Mike Matthews thinks the campaign has all the right pieces in place to be successful.

“We have a robust campaign that is going extremely well,” Matthews said. “With four weeks until the June 5 election and almost 100 volunteers canvassing the neighborhoods, we are educating all voters to ensure that our community understands the importance of Measure MB. Older adults especially appreciate the time we are taking to explain exemption waivers and the procedures in place to keep their private information safe. We have received many phone calls and applications already, and we are happy to answer any and all questions. Overall, parents, empty nesters, and older adults are highly supportive of the measure.”

Fenton is optimistic. She said support for local schools transcends politics. “Regardless of your political views, education is important to everyone,” she said. “As a community, this is our moment to come together and impart a legacy that will not only help our District now but for the foreseeable future.  I’ve gone to Sacramento and I’ve spoken with our elected officials. I truly believe that Measure MB is the best option to keep MBUSD among the best. We moved here specifically to send our children to public school, and I have never regretted that decision.”

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Written by: Mark McDermott

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