The big red numbers at the top of an election flyer that showed up in mailboxes this week were meant to scare the daylights out of voters in the Fort Worth school district.“Fort Worth ISD Proposition Amount: (here’s where the red ink starts) $489,700,000.00. Are you concerned? We are.”There are few things scarier to taxpayers than a big number with a dollar sign in front of it.To make it as scary as possible, you wouldn’t just say $490 million. You’d want to use every comma and every zero you can. You’d stretch the number out across the page.Most people see this as a lot of money — because in the context of their own budgets, it is. But whether it’s a big number in the context of a school district with more than 80,000 students, 83 elementary schools, 28 middle schools and 6th grade centers, 14 high schools and 17 special campuses requires a different frame of reference.Notice what I did: I packed in all the numbers I could find to convey the message that the Fort Worth school district is big. Most of us who don’t work in schools can’t really get into our heads just what those numbers mean in terms of facility requirements, not to mention the variety of student academic needs and approaches to education.It’s not difficult to trick people with numbers.Let’s say you want to buy a new car, and you’re trying to decide between two mid-sized SUVs, a Ford Edge or a Jeep Wrangler.The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the go-to source for vehicle safety ratings, has done side-impact crash tests on these SUVs.The IIHS gives the Edge a driver head injury measure of 176! The passenger injury measure is 208! (The exclamation points are meant to have the same effect as red type.)The Wrangler gets a driver head injury measure of 139 and a passenger head injury measure of 89.You might look at those numbers and the way they are presented and think the IIHS rates the Wrangler as safer than the Edge. But you don’t really have enough reference points to make that judgment. You just have numbers, some with exclamation points and some without.In fact, the Institute rates the Edge as a Top Safety Pick. The Wrangler gets a “marginal” rating on the side-impact test, with the driver facing “likely” rib fractures and/or internal organ injuries in a crash similar to the test.It would be nice if someone could give similar clarity on the Fort Worth school bond proposals.Is the proposed additional bond debt as alarming as the group that produced the flyer would have you believe? The group calls itself “It’s Okay to Say No To The School Bond.”They’ve given no evidence other than large numbers.The only thing I can tell you is that the FWISD’s numbers in terms of debt per student and other similar reference points are lower than many other districts in the area.But playing up the big number is a red herring (pun intended). It’s aimed at making you think there’s an easy way to decide how to vote because the red number is so big.It’s not that easy. The only true way to decide is the hard way, by examining the projects being proposed, what their purpose is, whether that fits into what you believe the school district should accomplish and whether you believe you can afford the impact on your own tax bill.The information to help you make that decision is available on the FWISD website, fwisd.org.
Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7830 Twitter: @mnorman9