The Higley Unified School District approved spending $12,000 for a telephone survey asking residents how they plan to vote on a November budget override even though state law prohibits electioneering by school districts.
The district governing board on June 26 agreed to ask voters to renew a $4.85 million maintenance and operations budget override. The phone survey was conducted Aug. 8-10.
Once the board decides to put something on the ballot, the district cannot use taxpayer money for campaigning, said Karen Osborne, Maricopa County elections director.
"They can do all sorts of things before, because you're trying to find out if there's enough support," Osborne said.
But district spokeswoman Sara Bresnahan said the district does not believe it violated state law because the board approved the survey before it voted to put the override on the ballot.
She said the district has not yet paid for the survey and wouldn't pay for it if it was done illegally.
"The survey in question was not conducted to influence an outcome of the election," Bresnahan said. "It was sourced based on the governing board direction to determine if there was public support of the override. The request for the survey was conducted prior to the date on which the override was approved by the governing board."
Once an issue is set for an election, such polling can be done by a campaign committee, generally formed by concerned parents or community leaders. However, there is no formal committee working on the current override.
Board member Kim Anderson said she was under the impression the polling was done before the board approved putting the override renewal on the ballot. She thought the report just wasn't put together yet.
"(Superintendent) Joyce Lutrey should be held strictly accountable for that," Anderson said. "That's inexcusable if they did this afterwards. It's just not right. Here we are, open to liability again."
Osborne said the elections department can't take any action unless someone files a complaint.
Doug Cole, a senior vice president of HighGround Public Affairs Consultants, has worked on several elections, including the current Ritz-Carlton referendum in Paradise Valley and the Mesa bond election.
"It's very common before you head into an election to conduct a survey so you know if there's a hill to climb," Cole said.
"Typically, it's done by a committee that's set up to support the election," he said. "It's really easy (to set up a committee). You've got to have a chairman, a treasurer and a bank account."
The survey polled 300 voters within the Higley district boundaries and showed that 82 percent said they would probably support the override.
Of those who planned to vote against the override, 31 percent said they were doing so because they thought the district was wasting money. Another 31 percent said they were afraid their taxes would go up.
Longtime pollster Bruce Merrill, director of the Walter Cronkite Media Research Program, conducted the survey. Merrill has conducted dozens of surveys over the past 40 years for school districts throughout the state.
Merrill said Monday he could not comment on whether the survey violated the law. Merrill said he collaborated with district officials on the questions for the survey, but did not know the district governing board had called for an election on the override.
The bill for the survey has not been sent to the district, Merrill said. Though he quoted the cost as $12,000, the actual charges will be $10,500, he said.