By Jayne Wellman Miller Business Administrator Town of Reading
In June 2017, Selectmen began working on drafting language for a survey to better understand residents’ interests and concerns regarding a Proposition 21/2 override election that failed in October 2016. The language was finalized and Town Hall staff administered the survey. The survey was offered online through Survey Monkey. Paper copies were distributed to the public at Town Hall, the Pleasant Street Center, and the Library. Surveys that were returned were manually entered into the online survey so as to capture responses within the data sets. The survey opened online on August 1 and closed at 7PM on September 5. 2,488 responses were collected through three modalities: 1,780 collected through the website link (which was the most shared link), 627 through the social media link posted on Facebook and Twitter, and 81 manually entered surveys from paper hardcopies.
Previously, the comments from Question 13 were released, but those comments represented less than half of the total comments (2,787) made on the survey.
- Q2 (voted yes): 79
- Q3 (voted no): 313
- Q4 (did not vote): 101
- Q5 (I would vote yes if…): 493
- Q6 (where do you get information): 627
- Q10 (municipal Services): 152
- Q13 (any additional comments): 1,022
While this is not a ‘statistically significant’ survey, we did limit responses on IP addresses. With 2,488 responses, this is equivalent to 13% of registered voters (using the figure of 19,026 registered voters from the 2017 Annual Town Election). Importantly, in the October 2016 override election, 6,892 ballots were cast representing 37% of registered voters at the time (of 18,677).
While we cannot assume global results on the clear basis of responses, we can look within each response group for trends that inform us why voters made the choices they did.
As a side note: Not included in the public presentation. Below are two charts that indicate the responses to the survey by date. August 1 the survey went live on the website and on social media, providing that first large peak. On August 3 it went out in the Community Biweekly Update, and on August 8, the second major peak in responses below (and highest), it was sent out by email from the School Department. This shows just how much reach the School Department has through its contact list. Responses then dwindled through the closing date on September 5 (seen in bottom chart). The numbers received after Sept. 5 were paper surveys that were manually entered by staff.
Question 1: Did you vote on Question 1 on the October 16, 2016 special election? (select one)
- 41% of respondents said they voted yes in the election, or 1,018.
- 39% of respondents said they voted no, or 967.
- 20% reported that they did not vote, or 503.
The takeaway: These numbers do not reflect the same ratio shown in the October 2016 election.
As a recap, 4,097 residents voted NO on the override ballot and 2,795 voted YES. This is important to note, because in this survey the ‘NO’ voters from the election are significantly underrepresented. It might be said that the equivalent of 36% of YES voters participated in the survey compared to only 24% of NO voters.
Question 2: If you voted YES, please select up to three choices.
The takeaway: School related cuts, past and future, drove Yes votes.
Historical (70%) and future (81%) cuts to school department funding were the primary drivers of YES voters, with keeping up service levels to protect the resale value of homes coming in a distant third at 36%.
Of note: Of the 79 comments received, many are unsupportive of the override, despite a yes vote – tenors of mistrust, begrudgingly voting yes, mixed messaging, and more – this is significant and marks the beginning of a phenomenon I call the Trust Gap.
Question 3: If you voted NO, please select up to three choices.
The takeaway: The override request was too large – and the “trust gap”
Primary reasons voters chose to vote NO on the override include (in order):
- 61% said the override request was simply too large.
- 52% said the Town (Municipal Budget) did not justify the need for an override and explain where the funds would be used.
- 43% said the Schools did not justify the need for an override and explain where the funds would be used. These voters did not trust the messages they heard about how an override would be spent. We dig in more on this topic later… but this is the Trust gap.
Of note: 313 Open Response comments on this question, showing a much higher percentage of respondents sharing their thoughts on the override. Common themes include excessive spending, taxation, the library debt exclusion, and an expectation that the Town (including schools) needs to stay within a budget.
Question 4: If you DID NOT vote, please select all that apply.
The Takeaway: Getting to the polls and an information gap – but comments also revealed clues.
43% or 127 of respondents state that they intended to vote but could not get to the polls, 30% or 88 respondents state that they didn’t feel informed enough about the issues, 27% (78) said that they didn’t realize the election was even happening.
Of note: 101 comments were received on this topic and 40% actually stated that they did in fact vote, so this selection was an erroneous choice. Of more interest, others stated that they didn’t live in Reading at the time, but did want to weigh in on the override issues as offered in the survey. Ultimately, it was smart to offer a comment category here as the answers offered weren’t necessarily the best fit for respondents.
Question 5: I would vote YES on an April 2018 Override if (select all that apply)
The takeaway: Clarity, Convincing, and Amount resonate across gaps.
Respondents are telling the town that clearly understanding where the funds will be spent is critical in gaining any support for a future override, and that they would only support it if the Selectmen and School Committee convinced residents that they have cut enough funds.
- 58% (992) said they would vote yes if there was more clarity about how the funds would be spent. This was the second place vote for both Yes and No voters. It was top for DNV (Did not Vote).
- 43% (773) said they would vote yes if the Selectmen and the School Committee convinced them that they have cut costs as much as possible. This was the top answer for No voters and 3rd for YES voters. Second for DNV.
- 41% (699) stated they would vote yes if they knew such a request was being made. However, only 2% of No voters agree with this sentiment. Instead, a smaller override was the third place answer for No voters – and may be a way to gain some support for a future override – If other conditions are met.
Of Note: Of the 493 comments, many flat out state that they would not support an override for any reason or any amount. Most of the rest of the comments are also negative and display concerns with honesty and trust of the School Committee, Superintendent, Town Manager, and Selectmen – with many divided along those lines. There is a perception of a rift between town departments, such as the DPW, Police, Fire, and Public Services, and the School Department, despite the healthy and positive working relationships among town employees. Reiterating the narrative that this is One Reading, one town, and that all the departments matter in order to
deliver the services necessary to the public, will be an important part of messaging in the future.
Question 6: Tell us where you typically gather information about local activities.
The Takeaway: Across the board, neighbors and friends are the biggest influencers.
This was one of the most interesting results of the survey. While results show that folks who voted yes and those who did not vote tend to obtain their news predominately from online news blogs and social media, and those who voted no also utilize online news blogs as well as print media and the town website, in all three cases, conversations with neighbors received the most votes. What this tells us is that most people, quite naturally, are engaging in confirmation bias – talking to friends and neighbors as the predominant source of news because they are already largely in agreement. Social media, the second choice among YES voters and third for those that did not vote, is in no small part an extension of conversations with neighbors. In fact, with this model, some may never hear or read an opposing viewpoint. It also shows what an important role the media plays in the dissemination of facts across multiple channels: print, social, digital, and cable. Perhaps most important is the effort that will be required by Selectmen, School Committee Members, and others to reach out to individuals with differing opinions , meet them where they are, and listen to their concerns. This survey was a strong step in that direction.
Question 7: Tax bills: How does Reading compare to peer communities?
The Takeaway: This question is all about perception.
On average Yes voters perceive Reading taxes lower than No voters and DNV respondents when compared to peer communities. That said, a fair number of respondents (348) answered that they had no idea how Reading compares. In general, few respondents believed the town was lower than peer averages. For the record, at the time of the Override vote Reading was below Peer Community averages, but now that the Library debt has been fully included, Reading taxes are on par with Peers. Bottom line: Perception is reality. If you believe your taxes are high, that will affect how you vote on an override.
Question 8: If you lived in the average $500,000 home you would vote yes on an April 2018 override if:
The Takeaway: The data show that there is movement for both Yes and No voters. More than half of YES voters wouldn’t support as high an override as last year. Slightly less than half of No voters would consider supporting an override.
Remembering that the No votes are significantly underrepresented in this survey, it remains interesting to note that only slightly less than half indicate that they might support an override.
Unsurprisingly, more than half of NO respondents said they would not vote YES for any amount – the entrenched No voters. Nearly half of Yes voters that participated in the survey said they would support an override even if the amount was greater than $1,000 annually. These are the entrenched Yes voters. The remaining folks in the middle – looking at override amounts from $250 and under to $750 – this is the zone of folks willing to change their minds and leaders will want to spend time listening to them.
Question 9: What is your use of Reading Public Schools?
The Takeaway: Respondents across the board are overwhelmingly either current parents of RPS students, or parents of former students. They are familiar with Reading Public Schools.
This question limited respondents to only one choice and thus the overwhelming response was 1,088 for having children currently in Reading Public Schools. The second runner up was 493 for those who had children attend RPS, but not currently. Together they far exceed the other three responses. For No voters, responses were nearly symmetrical for having current and former students attending RPS. We therefore understand that No voters that participated understand the school system and the role education plays in the community. That said, having children that currently attend RPS was higher across all respondents – 67% for Yes voters, 47% for those that Did Not Vote, and 38% for No voters. When 38% of NO voters have children enrolled in RPS, we can see that trust gap emerge again.
Question 10: Which municipal services do you or your family use? (Check all that apply)
The Takeaway: We see tremendous congruity among responses – for the Library, Recreation & DPW as the top three answers.
Town Clerk came in fourth among all respondents, with Public Safety just behind that. This question received 152 comments, 52 from yes voters, 85 from no voters, and 15 from those that did not vote. Despite derision in comments throughout the survey against the library project and resulting debt, it is strongly the most used department in the community based on these responses, receiving 1,818 votes on this question. While we can talk about the divisibility of certain public goods and services, generally everyone benefits from most of these services in one way or another. The extents to which they acknowledge or understand it tell us something interesting about the mindset of the voter. Comments from Yes and DNV respondents were generally matter of fact. No voters, who were more likely to offer a comment, carried a more negative tone in their comments, pointing once again to that trust gap.
Question 11: Age of Respondents
The Takeaway: While No voters are all ages, they tend to be older than YES and Did Not vote respondents, but not much older.
No one self-identified as under 18 on the survey. So looking at the Minimum and Maximum each category had responses from every other age class. The median age is lower for both Yes and DNV respondents. The standard deviation is larger for No voters- indicating that the spread of responses was larger than the other two classes.
Question 12: Number of years lived in Reading.
The Takeaway: No voters tend to be residents of Reading longer than Yes and DNV respondents.
Yes voters were clustered in 10-20 years (30%), then 3-6 years (20%). Did not vote respondents had 30% clustered in 10-20 years, then a pretty even distribution across the other categories. No voters had 35% in 30+ years, 26% in 10-20 years, and 23% in 20-30 years.
Question 13: Further Comments
The Takeaway: Nearly half of all the survey respondents left a general comment. This question, however, represents less than half of all the comments received throughout the survey. The trust gap is evident throughout these comments, but they also include accolades for elected and appointed officials and the various town departments, as well as constructive criticism across the board.