Cedarburg School Referendum Survey Raises Bias Concerns

Cedarburg, like many other districts seeking to pass a referendum, is working w/ controversial firm School Perceptions. Critics were concerned a community survey the firm helped with was basically a marketing tool. #wiright #wipolitics Click To Tweet

MacIver News Service | August 7, 2018

By Chris Rochester

MADISON – Cedarburg School District officials are moving forward with a referendum asking voters to approve $59.8 million in new spending. However, local critics say the decision to go ahead with the referendum was based on the results of a biased survey that was designed to show overwhelming community support whether it existed or not.

Documents obtained by the MacIver News Service through an open records request show at least one Cedarburg School Board member and several community members were concerned the community survey the district commissioned to gauge interest in the huge spending spree could be more of a marketing tool to justify the costly proposal.

“If the survey is designed actually to learn the community’s opinion, then I highly recommend removing the biased/leading statements…” wrote Cedarburg School Board member David Krier.

The district has been working with controversial consultant School Perceptions on the community survey. The Slinger-based firm has assisted hundreds of school districts seeking to pass large spending requests, including many in southeastern Wisconsin. 

Radio host Mark Belling has chronicled School Perceptions’ dubious business practices. With the firm’s help, “…school boards and superintendents are using public money to mislead their residents and pretending to conduct honest surveys,” Belling wrote in a Waukesha Freeman column earlier this year.

The survey, sent out in May, found that 60 percent of respondents would advise the Cedarburg School Board to pursue the referendum.

However, not all respondents were treated equally, according to the behind the scenes conversations. Staff and parents of CSD students were emailed links to an online version of the survey, while most local residents got a paper version in the mail. This was not done by accident.

“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 on May 9 in an email responding to Cedarburg School Board member David Krier.

Krier was critical of this methodology. “We should consider whether this might skew the survey results,” he wrote.

On top of that, there was a lack of consistency on how the paper surveys were mailed out. Cedarburg town and city residents got their surveys through the US Postal Service’s bulk mail program. Those who lived out of town, but still in the district, however received a 6-by-9 inch envelope with the survey folded in half, addressed to “resident,” according to the Cedarburg News Graphic newspaper.

“(We are) realizing now that some did not receive or perceived this a junk mailer and threw it away,” Cedarburg School district communications coordinator Karen Egelhoff told the News Graphic.

In response to the confusion, the district sent out a postcard via USPS reminding people to take the survey about a week before the response period closed.

School Perceptions helped the district coordinate the bulk mailings.

Voters will get the final say on the $59.8 million referendum on November 6th. If approved, it will be yet another successful referendum shepherded by School Perceptions, a fact that has some community members concerned.

Krier was also concerned about potentially biased wording in the survey, an issue he raised prior to its approval at an April 23 school board meeting.

“If the survey is designed actually to learn the community’s opinion, then I highly recommend removing the biased/leading statements and presentation I have identified in the attached. If not, it will be perceived as a sales pitch – our community is going to be (rightfully, given what has happened in other districts) very alert to that possibility,” Krier wrote in an April 22nd email.

“If there is a strategy behind the survey, then it isn’t really a survey and we shouldn’t call it one,” he wrote.

Another community member aware of School Perceptions’ business model emailed Krier with concerns that surveys conducted by them are designed to bolster the firm’s reputation among school district bureaucrats with dreams of bigger budgets.

“I’m familiar with how other districts have distributed surveys created by School Perceptions to ‘grease the wheels’ with leading questions to try to steer the community to voting yes…I appreciate all efforts that are made to keep the Cedarburg survey as neutral as possible,” the person wrote in an April 26 email.

Krier also accused the survey of trying to hide what the project would truly cost the community.

“Shouldn’t the survey advise that the $72.3 million is just Stage 1? This is part of the whole story, but the additional $30 million pieces are missing here.”

Even with the potentially skewed survey results, the district decided that $72.3 million was too much of a stretch. The school board unanimously approved a $59.8 million referendum question on July 18th.

Voters will get the final say on the $59.8 million referendum on November 6th. If approved, it will be yet another successful referendum shepherded by School Perceptions.

That’s the concern that persists among some community members, one of whom wrote to Bugnacki, saying that having School Perceptions collect the survey results was “akin to having the fox guard the hen house.”

“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,” the person wrote.

*Correction: this story originally stated David Krier voted for the referendum. He did not vote for the referendum as he was not in attendance.