Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Popular Guy

Today I was called by not just one, but two research firms performing surveys regarding our community.

The first one was by Burges & Burges, a firm out of Cleveland who is often hired by candidates for office to develop campaign strategy. The 2007 Bond Levy Campaign also used Burges & Burges as advisors (and Burges and Burges made a contribution to the campaign fund…). The interviewer said my name was given to them as someone who should be interviewed, and I'm honored by that. I was asked a number of good questions about our school district, and I did my best to answer consistently with what I've written here.

When it was all over, I asked if they would tell me who commissioned the survey, and they said no, but gave me a name to call.

Then this evening, I was called by an interviewer from Saperstein & Associates, a Columbus-based public opinion research firm. Again, the 2007 Bond Levy Campaign used Saperstein, spending about $18,000 for the survey and analysis. I don't know whether I was selected randomly, or am on some hit list.

I didn't like the Saperstein questions so well. Many seemed more loaded, like the "head I win, tails you lose" gambit. Don't miss this point - it is possible to construct questions such that the question itself alters your perception of the issue. Some of my best teachers could do this, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. But sometimes questions are really directives, like when Mom says "Have you taken the trash out yet?" She's not really concerned about the answer, only the outcome.

Anyway, I refused to answer some of these questions because the premise of the question wasn't valid.

Before the survey started, I asked the interviewer, "who commissioned the survey?" They said answering that might influence my answers, and that we could come back to my question at the end of the survey. So when the interview was over, I asked again. The interviewer gave me the number of the Saperstein home office and said I would have to speak with Mr. Saperstein.

I don't need to. I'm sure the Saperstein survey was commissioned by the Levy Campaign Committee, and suspect the Burges survey was as well. Perhaps the School Board funded one directly.

So the next question is whether the public will ever see the results of these surveys.

If the surveys are funded by the Levy Committee, then they are private documents, and not subject to the Sunshine Laws. One would hope that they would share the survey results anyway, but I can understand a fear that disclosure of the results could further jeopardize the passage of the levy.

But on the other hand, any survey paid for directly by the School Board is a public document, and must be disclosed.

Furthermore, I believe that any briefing, in any form made by the Levy Committee to the School Board must be done in a public meeting of the School Board, and the material presented to the School Board becomes public domain as a consequence. There are no 'whisper numbers' permitted by the Sunshine Laws: what the Board knows, the public is entitled to know. This is not the kind of information which can be protected by Executive Session.

I've been through this drill before - in 2006, and came to an impasse with the Board. Short of filing and winning a lawsuit, there is no way to force them to disclose this information. But maybe the weight of your insistence can change their thinking this time.


  1. I received the following additional information from Burges & Burges Strategists:

    "The interview you completed (with Burges) was commissioned by the Hilliard City Schools, and the results of which will become part of a report that will be public information. The interview was to gauge overall perceptions and opinions about the schools and is not statistically accurate. The district provided us with names of community/opinion leaders that would speak openly to us about their ideas and we called everyone on the list. Our report will be available by the end of the month.

    There is also a Saperstein survey in the field that will help quantify those perceptions and opinions so we can determine what thoughts are pervasive. You were also randomly selected to complete the Saperstein survey...that is a complete coincidence.

    That survey follows a standard survey format by asking you some initial questions and then gives both positive and negative arguments to determine which issues/items factored into your decision-making. It is an important research process because it allows the district to really understand how community members process information and form opinions based on the information. The board will use that data, along with the Burges interviews to decide what they will put on November's ballot---based on community input. All of that will become public as soon as all the data has been analyzed and given to the board."

    While this means these surveys were probably funded with taxpayer dollars, I think it's the lesser of two evils when the other alternative is to have them paid for by businesses who are also suppliers to the District.

    My expectation is that the public will see the results before the election. While there is a valid concern that seeing the results will alter the way people will vote, it doesn't necessarily mean defeat. Indeed, a shared consideration of the results by the Board and the community might lead to actions which improve the chances of passage.

    Either way, more communications is better than less. Glad to see the Board moving in that direction.


  2. That second poll sounds like what's called in the industry a "push poll".

    I got one back in '04; the "questions" were propagandish statements masquerading as queries.