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Dougco says survey results “inconclusive”

CASTLE ROCK – A spring survey of parents in the Douglas County School District shows many are unhappy with the district’s voucher program, its overall direction and how resources are being allocated.

But district leaders say the survey results, intended as baseline data for evaluating the district’s performance, are invalid because of a poor response rate. Of the district’s 76,500 parents, only 4,900 – or 6 percent – responded.

“Unfortunately, the response rate was very low,” the district’s system performance officer, Syna Morgan, told school board members Tuesday night. “The reason why my position is that the results are invalid is because … industry standard is a 30 percent response rate.”

Response rates for the district’s elementary and secondary student surveys, also conducted in April, were similarly low, at 14 percent and 5 percent respectively.

Morgan said the district’s annual surveys traditionally have received response rates of about 10 percent but she believes it’s possible for much higher returns.

Jefferson County’s annual surveys have netted response rates as high as 85 percent, she said, when accompanied by a major marketing campaign.

Parent responses to many questions were largely favorable, with 80 percent agreeing with the statement, “I consider my child’s school to be an excellent school.” And 85 percent agreed their “school offers its students a safe environment to learn.”

But the favorable answers drop dramatically on queries about district leadership and the voucher plan, which district officials are appealing after a Denver judge declared it unconstitutional:

  • Statement: “I believe that the district is headed in the right direction.” Response: 39 percent unfavorable, 23 percent neutral, 38 percent favorable.
  • Statement: “I support the Choice Scholarship Program (district funds given to families for use at private schools) as a choice in schooling for the district.” Response: 55 percent unfavorable, 16 percent neutral, 29 percent favorable.
  • Statement: “I feel that the district is allocating resources and funds effectively.” Response: 48 percent unfavorable, 26 percent neutral, 26 percent favorable.

School board member Meghann Silverthorn questioned whether the results weren’t useful in some way.

“I understand what you’re saying as far as using the results as a baseline,” Silverthorn told Morgan. “However, I guess I want to get your opinion on the idea that anybody who responds to a survey … that particular opinion is valid in and of itself.”

Several audience members applauded Silverthorn’s remarks.

“I definitely agree with you that every opinion counts,” Morgan said. “The concern I have is when you look at one of the prompts and it says 60 percent were favorable – that’s 60 percent of 4,900, not 60 percent of a representative group of the entire parent population.

“From my office, the purpose of the data is to evaluate the performance and I would not evaluate our performance based on the data.”

The parent survey responses on the district voucher program are more unfavorable than those in an April 2011 poll of 500 likely voters in Douglas County. In that poll, 49 percent of respondents favored the voucher program while 47 percent opposed it. A majority of those respondents did not have school-aged children living at home.

School board members who approved the voucher plan by a 7-0 vote, however, have touted the results of the November 2011 election as proof that the community is solidly behind them. All three school board candidates favoring vouchers won, despite opposition from anti-voucher candidates.

Tuesday’s survey discussion prompted little discussion by board members other than Silverthorn, and it was not a topic for about a dozen public speakers that evening.

Still, some voucher critics are touting the results as evidence of community dissatisfaction. Taxpayers for Public Education, a group that includes plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed against the voucher plan, wrote about the survey results and the district’s decision to render them invalid on its Facebook page:

“The results are clear to us … We hope (district leaders) take a close look at the results of this survey and use it for input into what our community REALLY wants – to continue our strong tradition of public school excellence!”

Morgan, who is in charge of the district’s surveys, recommended they be redistributed in the fall, accompanied by a strong marketing push to parents.

“If there was a very clear understanding that these surveys mattered and the input had a direct impact on the decisions that were made,” she said, “I believe strongly the response rate would be higher.”