MacIver News Service | Oct. 17, 2018
By Chris Rochester
MADISON – As the campaign to approve nearly $60 million in new spending heats up, some are wondering whether the Cedarburg School District pro-referendum crowd is stacking the deck.
Documents obtained by MacIver News Service through an open records request suggest that district officials were more concerned with tilting the results of a community survey than gauging public sentiment on the spending measure.
The survey, sent out in May, found that 60 percent of respondents would advise the Cedarburg School Board to pursue the referendum, slated for a vote during the Nov. 6 general election. Of 2,007 responses, 609 were via paper surveys sent in the mail.
But that affirmative position got a boost when some respondents received a bonus opportunity to complete the survey, according to the behind-the scenes-conversations.
Staff and parents of CSD students were emailed links to an online version of the survey, and then emailed multiple reminders to complete it.
Meanwhile, most local residents got a paper version via the U.S. Postal Service. The district mailed out 8,400 of the surveys—which many discarded as junk mail, according to the local newspaper.
To some, the heads-up to stakeholders more likely to support the ballot question feels more like a statistics trick than an unbiased effort to gauge public opinion. A MacIver News Service investigation in August raised concerns about bias in the district’s information-gathering effort.
“If there is a strategy behind the survey, then it isn’t really a survey and we shouldn’t call it one,” Cedarburg School Board member David Krier wrote in an April 22 email to Superintendent Todd Bugnacki.
Despite Krier’s protest, in two email blasts in the closing weeks of the survey, CSD officials urged parents and staff to fill out the survey online.
The May 22 and 29 emails signed by Bugnacki and the Cedarburg School Board encouraged staff to complete the survey electronically—and give their paper copies to another adult and have them complete that.
“If you reside in the District, you will receive a mailed survey as well and should encourage another adult (eligible to vote) in your home to take the Mail survey,” the email states.
“The involvement of our staff is critical in this process.”
Krier was concerned staff and parents, more likely to green light the referendum, would be able to skew the survey’s findings. Sending them links to the survey would boost their response rate compared with others in the community, like senior citizens.
But that was always the plan, Bugnacki said in a reply to Krier.
“The plan all along was to email the survey to parents, teachers, and staff. All residents within our school district boundaries have or will receive the survey via the mail. Additional surveys are available for families if needed,” Bugnacki wrote in a May 9 email.
“Any concerns that this might result in over-sampling of a specific segment of the voters who favor the plan? If not, why? I want to understand,” Krier replied on May 13.
Board member Kevin Kennedy responded, explaining that identifying respondents as staff and parents would help district staff sort through the data later. Neither he nor Bugnacki addressed Krier’s concern about biasing the survey results.
However, CSD communications coordinator Karen Egelhoff emailed other community groups at the request of Bugnacki, asking them to email their memberships a reminder to complete the survey—the paper version.
Those emails, sent in mid-May, did not contain links to the electronic survey. If a recipient did not get a survey in the mail or accidentally threw theirs away, they had to call the district to request another one in the mail. If they wanted to take the survey online, they had to do it manually using a code printed on the paper survey.
So while staff and parents got multiple emails linking directly to the survey and were encouraged to give their paper copy to another adult, everyone else had to go out of their way to request copies using snail mail.
Snail mail snafu
The district mailed out 8,400 surveys, Egelhoff told the Cedarburg News Graphic newspaper. Soon after they went out, controversy ensued, and many community members said they didn’t receive a copy.
Some of the mailers were addressed to “postal patron” and therefore thrown away as junk mail. “(We are) realizing now that some did not receive or perceived this a junk mailer and threw it away,” Egelhoff told the News Graphic. There were 24 complaints, she said.
But out of those 8,400 surveys, the district only got 609 paper surveys back, a 7.25 percent response rate. That’s just one-third of the 2,007 total number of surveys that were completed, according to a survey summary obtained by MacIver News.
Egelhoff said she spoke with the Cedarburg postmaster and didn’t know why there were so many problems with the paper survey.
“Unless the carrier ran out or the bulk mailer was mistaken for junk mail as it was addressed ‘postal patron’…She [the postmaster] did say that a bulk mailer is not the most accurate way to send because it is not directed to a specific person,” Egelhoff wrote to a concerned community member who said he and others did not get a survey.
Egelhoff noted in multiple emails the district sent out a postcard via USPS reminding people to take the survey about a week before the response period closed.
“Moving forward, we will not be using the bulk mailer option through the post office,” she wrote.
Controversial survey firm called into question
The email blasts to staff and parents were sent from a School Perceptions account, which the district commissioned to help conduct the survey. The Slinger-based firm has assisted hundreds of school districts seeking voter approval of large spending requests, including many in southeastern Wisconsin, according to the firm’s website and news reports.
Many have criticized School Perceptions’ business model of helping school districts “grease the skids” for large spending measures.
Radio host Mark Belling pointedly criticized the firm earlier this year in an op-ed. With School Perceptions’ help, “…school boards and superintendents are using public money to mislead their residents and pretending to conduct honest surveys,” Belling wrote in the Waukesha Freeman piece.
One community member wrote to Bugnacki, “School Perceptions has built their business around helping school districts pass referendums. They are advocates, not impartial referees. Their ability to sell future projects to the next school district will depend, in part, on whether the Cedarburg referendum passes.”
Critics like Belling say School Perceptions is one cog in a larger school spending assembly line that begins with persuasion efforts by contractors.
The simple question of capacity
With the help of building contractors, district officials also tried muddying the waters on the question of whether schools are actually over capacity.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Alec Johnson wanted to know about the district’s proclaimed space constraints.
“There will be people out there in the public who will want to know how many students each of the schools can accommodate, and what I have written now from that conversation wouldn’t answer the questions they have,” Johnson wrote in a May 9 email to Egelhoff.
“I may have to write that the district was unable to provide that information if the district is not able to answer this question,” he wrote.
Johnson was asking a simple question: what is the capacity of each building, and how many students attend each one? Despite the simple question, district administrators could not answer on their own and instead sought out advice from the building contractors. They weighed in with PR advice, advising district staff to say it’s not that simple.
“I’d love to be able to ask the reporter ‘how would you like to DEFINE capacity?’” wrote Joe Clarke of Groth Design Group, which is working with the district and general contractor CG Schmidt.
“Applying a ‘capacity’ to high-/middle-schools is difficult,” he said. Nonetheless, Cedarburg’s campaign hinges on portraying the schools as at risk of bursting at the seams.
“We haven’t had a reporter get into that much detail. It takes a dissertation that nobody ever wants to write…I would say that we haven’t added academic classrooms at the high school since the early 2000’s and the enrollment has increased by XXX students,” advised Dan Davis, senior vice president at CG Schmidt.
Johnson published a story looking at capacity issues on October 16. He notes that several of the schools are “above or almost at capacity,” at least according to the “targeted functional design capacity” formula referenced by the contractors.
On the other hand, Bugnacki in a July 3 email to the board notes the importance of “partnering with” the local newspaper, the News Graphic, “to report accurate and timely information” that will “assist us in educating the community on our [Long Range Master Plan].”
In the email, Bugnacki points out the paper’s favorable coverage of referendum advocates’ narrative about school capacity, the first of a series of articles.
Bugnacki was less thrilled with MacIver News Service’s more aggressive efforts. MacIver requested all email communications and attachments regarding the survey from Bugnacki and board members in two separate open records requests.
“The last [open records] request consumed hours of Brenda’s time, along with administrative time and we incurred attorney fees,” Bugnacki wrote to school board members, referring to executive assistant Brenda Rowland. “The final records provided to the requestor consisted of 2,000 pages of correspondence,” Bugnacki wrote.
But why did district officials need to bring in an attorney to respond to a basic open records request seeking electronic records? MacIver News made a narrow request for email communications and attachments regarding the community survey from February 2018 to July 9, 2018.
Do district officials have something to hide?
In an email to Bugnacki dated June 20, the district’s attorney Mary L. Hubacher advises the superintendent on what communications do – and do not – have to be released in a public records request.
“You need only provide documents that are responsive to the specific request. If there are emails in the chain that do not pertain at all to the ‘community survey’ then they do not need to be disclosed,” Hubacher wrote.
The attorney added that the answer “becomes a little more difficult” when it comes to email chains.
“…(I)t sometimes becomes obvious that something is missing and creates suspicion as to why the chain is not complete. But if you can clearly distinguish responsive from nonresponsive then pull the nonresponsive,” Hubacher noted.
Bugnacki did not return multiple messages seeking comment for this story. Asked whether the superintendent was in the office this week, Bugnacki’s assistant said that, yes, he was.
M.D. Kittle contributed to this report.