Poll: Many Hamilton County residents support tax increase for schools

Backpacks line the wall of a third-grade classroom on April 13, 2016.
Backpacks line the wall of a third-grade classroom on April 13, 2016.


The poll was conducted by Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies. It polled 400 registered and engaged, or “likely” voters, in Hamilton County. Of those polled, 200 were called via landlines and 200 were called via cellphones. The poll was conducted live via telephone between Jan. 31 and Feb. 2, 2019.

Despite the Hamilton County Commission's rejection of a tax hike to increase funding for public education last week, a poll found that nearly 65% of Hamilton County voters would support a property tax rate increase for schools.

The previously undisclosed poll, conducted from Jan. 31-Feb. 2, also found significant support for the Hamilton County school district as well as many of the items included in Superintendent Bryan Johnson's proposed 2020 budget.

The Times Free Press obtained the poll but has not verified who commissioned it. The poll was not paid for by the county or the school district, but by local business leaders, sources said.

Pollster Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies said he conducted the poll earlier this year and targeted registered and engaged voters. The margin of error is 4.9%.

Of the 400 voters polled, 56% said they approved of the job Hamilton County Schools was currently doing, and 62% said they had trust and confidence in the county's public schools.

Overall, 61% said they were in favor of increasing property taxes "to fund academic and educationally related programs, improve and update school buildings and raise teacher pay" with 47% saying they were definitely in favor.

Of the 37% opposed to an increase in property taxes, 28% of respondents said they were definitely against a tax hike.

Bolger said the number of those who are "definitely for" or "definitely against" is significant.

"This is something they feel strongly about," Bolger said, of what is called the "intensity" of the results.

Though the poll was conducted in February, Bolger said that it is unlikely that attitudes about education issues like these would have changed substantially in the months since.

"It's hard to say with 100% certainty, but attitudes like this don't change easily," Bolger told the Times Free Press. "If we were back in the community this week, I think we would poll in the same margin of error. Education tends to be a more stable issue."

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and Superintendent Bryan Johnson were aware of the poll and its results before the county commission voted against a 34-cent property tax rate increaseon Wednesday.

"What was of interest to me when I had the opportunity to look at the poll was the support on certain specific questions, and that there was actually more support than what I would have anticipated," Coppinger said. "Overall, there was a tremendous amount of support. The numbers were encouraging, but it didn't drive the issue. The issues were driven by the needs of the community."

He did not share poll results because he did not commission it and the county did not pay for it.

County commissioners and Board of Education members, however, said they were unaware of the survey.

School board member Kathy Lennon, of District 2, was frustrated that the poll had been conducted and had not been shared publicly. She said previously that she was disappointed in the vote against the tax increase.

"Those were in results that were in favor of everything in that budget, so that could have helped us in presenting it to the commissioners," Lennon said.

She said she would like to know more specifics about who conducted the poll, how it was done and who paid for it, as well as hear from Johnson as to why it was not released. But she doesn't think it would have affected the outcome.

"I don't think it would have changed the commissioners' standpoint. They heard loud and clear what the community members had to say," she said. "I don't think it would have changed their mind at all."

Board member Tucker McClendon, of District 8, said he was not surprised to hear that the community was in favor of increasing public school funding and would support a tax hike.

"I think the poll is a snapshot of what a portion of the community supported," he said.

As for whether it would have changed the outcome of the commission vote, McClendon declined to speculate.

"What's done is done, and now we have to deal with the cards we were dealt and get to work to present a balanced budget to the county commission," he added.

Coppinger said he didn't think the results would have changed any commissioners' votes.

"Your target audience was nine people. I don't think it would have made a difference whatsoever," he said.

Commissioner Sabrena Smedley, of District 7, asserted that it would not have changed her vote.

"If I have to do it all over again today, I would have voted the same way," she told the Times Free Press on Friday.

She was not aware that the poll had been done, but said according to her own personal polling as well as emails and calls she has received, she felt that 75-80% of her constituents were against a tax hike.

Smedley also noted that people had plenty of opportunities to weigh in and contact their commissioners ahead of Wednesday's vote.

District 6 Commissioner David Sharpe, a proponent of the increased funding request, disagreed with Smedley.

Upon learning of the results of the poll, Sharpe told the Times Free Press that the results "demonstrate that a majority of the community had not been heard on [the] issue."

"It is clear that support for this budget extends beyond partisan circles, and the isolated echo chambers that some of my colleagues choose to retreat into are disappointing," he said. "Having these numbers available certainly would've helped broaden the discussion beyond political posturing and partisan ambition."

John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, reviewed the methodology of the poll for the Times Free Press. He said the sample size was relatively small to be reflective of overall Hamilton County taxpayers; such a size would make it difficult to pull out information about voters in individual districts - which Smedley cited as a concern about the results.

A 4.9% margin of error also indicates how closely contested the issues were in Hamilton County, Geer said.

Polling registered voters typically leads to reaching more Republicans, Geer said, and Bolger's use of both cellphones and landlines is industry-standard and helps ensure reaching seniors who are more likely to be Republican and younger adults who are more likely to be Democrat.

Of those polled, 23% said they now have children who attend Hamilton County Schools. The poll also assessed respondents' opinions on specific issues outlined in Johnson's budget proposal such as a teacher pay hike, the need for additional school counselors and social workers and increased technology access in schools.

Some of the results of the poll included:

  • 89% were in favor of increasing teacher pay by 4%
  • 91% were in favor of increasing funding for reading to help students get on grade level by third grade
  • 81% were in favor of hiring 20 new school counselors
  • 36% were against reducing the public school fees paid by parents

The poll also assessed some of the attitudes toward education and the role of public schools in the community.

Such as, 83% of respondents said improving the school system is important for "attracting good high-paying jobs and maintaining home values and quality of life" and 86% said that support staff and teacher salaries need to be competitive with other school systems.

Respondents were almost split on whether they thought county taxes are already too high: 56% agreed with the statement "County taxes are too high. Stopping this proposal ensures our taxes do not increase," and 43% did not.

The majority, or 62%, of respondents also agreed that there is waste in the school budget that could be cut before a tax hike is considered, but only 38% agree that schools "already get enough money."

One poll question specifically addressed one of the messages that has been thrown out at public meetings by those opposed to a tax increase for public schools.

Only 26% of respondents agreed with the statement that "Obama-trained campaign operatives have come into our community, stacked the school board with liberals and want to raise taxes and take over education in Hamilton County." In that question, 71% said they did not agree.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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