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By Douglas Moran

Frustrated with arguments on the parcel tax

Uploaded: Apr 17, 2015

I am hearing from various of the people I talk to that they are as frustrated as I am with the information being provided on the merits of the PAUSD parcel tax currently being voted on (Measure A). Although this blog is unlikely to have any effect on the outcome of this election, if the frustrations enumerated here are in fact widespread and made known to the movers-and-shakers, it may improve future election campaigns.

1. The election on a tax should allow the electorate to convey a decision on the funding/spending levels and spending priorities of the government body, that is, is it handling the budget appropriately? However, in this election, much of the opposition seems to revolve around issues of the quality of governance, which is not appropriate for this sort of election (except in the extremes), but rather should be part of the elections of the members of the School Board.
Separation of these two aspects would have been easier if the timing of the election had allowed the electorate to get a better sense of governance changes from having a new Superintendent and changes on the School Board.

2. I am frustrated that I am in a situation of "reading tea leaves", that is, having to make unreliable inferences from bad information (inadequate and poorly presented).
The relevant information provided by the advocates has been very poor, and that by the (unorganized) opponents has been negligible. Much of the information that I and others would like to have is coming from highly unreliable sources, such as anonymous posters on the Town Square Forums of Palo Alto Online.(foot#1) If someone wants me to take their claims seriously, they need to be willing to put their real names to it, to take responsibility for, and be accountable for, those claims. The name also affords an opportunity for the reader to assess the knowledge and biases of that person.
Note: I am too far outside the school community to have independent judgments on school budgets and governance. Similarly for knowing who I can trust to have knowledge and good judgments about which aspects. Even residents with children in the PAUSD are often in similar situations.

3. Another problem with so much of the arguments about the parcel tax measure occurring in Town Square Forums is the utterly disorganized presentations inherent in such forums. Add lacking structure and lengthy to unreliable and one has a very low-value information stream.
Acknowledgement: Much of what I present here has already been broached in TSF.

4. Excessive appeals to emotion raise warning flags for me, and those like me. People who want to make decisions based on analysis have learned that this is often indicative of there not being a logical and factual basis for the claim, but then sometimes it is simply an indicator that the advocate is clueless about the audience. (foot#2) Example: "Think of the children" (and its many variants) has become such a common rhetorical device that it now appears explicitly in many taxonomies of logical fallacies (a subcase of Appeal to Emotion), and warranted satirizing in the animated TV show "The Simpsons" as a repeated hysterical utterance of one of the characters, Helen Lovejoy.

5. The details of how the ballot measure was formulated raises a number of warning flags for me and others. For example, see the PA Weekly's Editorial: Caution on parcel tax: School board should be concerned about timing and over-reaching. The size of the proposed parcel tax was determined by polling data, creating an inference of "We will spend whatever we can get our hands on", which often implies that the spending won't be wise or effective. In this context, the arguments for how the taxes will be spent can easily be interpreted as rationalizations rather than justifications.
The advocates for the parcel tax have done too little regarding the justifications, but the opponents of the tax have provided a variety small criticisms, but nothing--either individually or cumulatively--rising to the level of arguing against the need for the tax.
I have come to see this election as another instance of bad governance in the school district. Given recent history, one of the key messages of the conduct of this election should have been "This is why we are deserving of your trust", rather than "You need to trust us".

6. More appeals to emotion in claims of what the money would be used for. Many Palo Altans are veterans of the budgeting process in other organizations, both in formulating budgets for approval, and reviewing budgets submitted by subordinates. We are well aware of the games that get played in terms of what you hide and what you expose, how items get shuffled around between "pockets" (accounts, categories?) and how you align income and expenses in those various "pockets". There seem to be lots of residents who see the budget arguments as manipulative, even offensive, but are going to vote for the tax anyway because they understand the election is about the tax (funding level) itself, and not about how the advocates (and opponents) conduct the election. (foot#3)

7. Endorsements: The "Bandwagon" Logical Fallacy: The advocacy for the parcel tax presents us with long lists of names of prominent people endorsing the measures. Some of these people have endorsed after carefully considering the pros-and-cons; others have endorsed with no analytically consideration, hopping on what they consider a bandwagon. And many others deciding to endorse for a range of other reasons. For the vast majority of the electorate, it is impossible to determine which is which, and how many are in each category. I recognize that endorsements, both quantity and individual ones, do strongly influence a significant portion of the electorate, but when I look at the advocates' campaign materials, this is 25% of what is offered, with Appeal to Emotion occupying much of the remainder.

8. Unreliable information (resumed): contradictions from the advocates. The official literature for the parcel tax says that it will be used for smaller class sizes. From the unofficial sources (anonymous and second hand), I get two contradictory claims. One is that the funding is important for keeping classes small enough at the high school level so that teachers can provide individual attention to students. The other is that the overwhelming emphasis is at the elementary school level. Both these could be uninformed speculation, based upon knowledge and/or assumptions that spending will match the advocate's own priorities. (foot#4) Or it might be a mix of both, or?

My basic message for voters is to not conflate a vote on funding levels with being a referendum on governance, and to not conflate the conduct of the campaigns with what is to be the result of the vote. However, my sense is that the School District and the advocates for this measure have created a frustration level where in one of these elections the voters will reject this separation, and use the power of the purse as a proxy. I find it particularly worrisome that many of the points raised here are reiterations of concerns already raised in January in the Weekly editorial cited above.

Oh. Before you attack the above as being biased by upon how I have decided to vote, know that you are provably wrong.

2013-2014 Parcel Tax Fiscal Report, including the Parcel Tax Community Oversight Committee Report to the Board of Education:
- From School Board Packet
- Alt copy: Measure A Website (from below comment by George Jaquette, a member of the Oversight Committee)

---- Footnotes ----
1. Info from anonymous commenters: For example, see the news articles Guest Opinion: Tax renewal would protect Palo Alto school programs by Glenn "Max" McGee (PAUSD Superintendent) and 'Yes on A' campaign raises more than $46,000.

2. Appeals to emotion: One of the basic lessons in books and courses on managing small technology companies is recognizing that you have in close proximity people who are motivated very differently. For example, you can give a presentation that will have your sales representatives on their feet, and the engineers sitting in the back snickering. Or one that has the engineers engaged, and the sales reps totally bored.
Similarly for training sales reps about different audiences.

3. A common budgetary tactic is to have your most vulnerable funding supporting your most important and/or popular tasks, thereby making it hard to cut. Recognize that this occurs widely in both public and private organizations.
Sometimes this is manipulative, and sometimes it is simply being realistic about organization psychology. For example, one way upper managers feel they are having influence in the budgeting process is to direct certain items to be cut, but since they aren't willing to spend the time to make good decisions, they make quick decisions, and when those goes sour, they blame the lower-level managers for not protecting him from making those bad decisions. Consequently, lower-level managers are trained to hide items that upper management will be tempted to cut and later regret.
Famous examples (from politics) of these bad judgments:
1. Senator William Proxmire (D-Wisconsin) gave his "Golden Fleece Award" (for governmental waste) to a variety of important scientific work based upon the title, or unrepresentative phrases in the reports. The most famous of these was "The Sex Life of the Screwworm" by E. F. Knipling. This was ground-breaking work in biological pest control (releasing sterile males) that had already produced tens of billions in savings to the agriculture industry by the time Proxmire made his award. Proxmire eventually formally apologized for his irresponsible publicity seeking (after being sued).
2. In the Republican response to the 2009 State of the Union Address, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal used the phase "something called 'volcano monitoring'" as a characterization of wasteful federal spending. To my knowledge, he never explicitly recanted. However, he did subsequently (2012-11-12), and unsuccessfully, warn Republicans to "stop being the stupid party".

4. Class size consideration: Unrecognized assumptions:
Someone who is focused on problem of suicides by high school students might well assume that the focus of small class sizes would be there.
Someone who is aware of the following research is likely to guess that the focus on would be on the lower grades.
The research on class size that I am aware of is that small classes are very advantageous through Third Grade, and rapidly falls off in importance after that. At the high school level, that research found little difference between smaller classes (20-25?) and much larger ones (35-40?). This make intuitive sense because a college freshman is typically faced with large class sizes, and there isn't that much change in how they learn from when they were high school seniors. At that level, how the class is taught seems to be more important than its size. A confounding factor is that smaller class size can compensate for problems in the teaching. This happened to me during my senior year in high school: The school didn't have anyone to teach the math class so one of the other teachers had gone to summer school to learn the material, but despite good intentions, she had no mathematical aptitude and taught it as rote (she hadn't grasped that even trivially different orders of algebraic transformations were equivalent). Fortunately for the class, there were several students with the aptitudes and quick learning that they could fill the gaps in the official instruction.

An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particular strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.

If you behave like a Troll, don't waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.