Superintendent Ann Moore didn't think she was doing anything wrong. Her Huntsville (Ala.) City School District needed $9.6 million more per year to maintain a variety of enrichment programs, including one for gifted students. She opted to appeal directly to the taxpayers, the ultimate arbitrators.
Prior to the tax vote, held in mid-January, Moore talked up the tax increase to community leaders and chatted about it at PTA meetings. She persuaded school principals to lobby for two tax referendums over school loudspeakers and to use signs in front of their schools, according to local reports.
Instead of being noted for her willingness to face the public and explain her reasons for asking for more money during a recession, she was accused of being unethical. "Employees of taxpayer-funded schools should not campaign during work time, nor should government funds, supplies or facilities be used to promote a position on a vote," attorney Dean Johnson complained to the local media. The Huntsville Times reported that voters had mixed feelings about being inundated with political messages coming from the superintendent and the schools. As the superintendent and attorneys haggled over the legalities of using school time to promote a political cause, the voters became wary.
In the end, the voters rendered a split decision. Moore won on one tax measure, but lost on another, denying the district the money it sought.
Moore insists the responsibility of her office requires her to promote anything good for the district.
She might be right, but her political approach was all wrong, according to some advice given by political consultants. Political consultants who specialize in education issues have a game plan for going to the voters. "Superintendents should reach out to the community in the pre-bond stage," says Larry Remer, president of The Primacy Group, a San Diego-based political consulting firm. "After the bond is on the ballot, the superintendent has to shut up. Then the teachers and parents have to go out and sell," he says. Even then, they have to be careful about how they promote their cause. Grassroots efforts are usually best. Overt campaigning on school time is dicey. Some states even have rules that prevent a superintendent from directly campaigning.
Uncovering Hot Issues
Several superintendents who have won tax referendums and levies passed say the advice of political consultants has made the difference between winning and losing.
Superintendent James Fleming, head of the Capistrano (Calif.) Unified School District, credits The Primacy Group for gaining support for a tax bond issue. In 1999, Fleming was pushing for Measure A to raise $65 million for school repairs and construction. It was Fleming's first experience with a bond issue in his 11 years in the district. "I depended on Larry," says Fleming. "He would tell me the most effective venue for me to make a point. Sometimes it was beneficial to talk to the chamber of commerce. At other times I appealed to elected school board members and parent and teacher leaders." Parents, teachers and business leaders then became the conduits to the voting public.
Remer's game plan for the Capistrano bond issue involved voter polling months before Measure A came to a vote. Telephone calls to residents gauged how they felt about the schools and the bond issue. The calls yielded useful-and unexpected-data used to direct the campaign.
"When we planned to do the bond issue, we were going to focus on renovating older schools," Fleming says. "We were talking about replacing roofs. But when we polled the community, we found the hot issue was new schools to relieve overcrowding." Although renovation was actually the goal for raising the bond money, the campaign's thrust became: Let's make our schools smaller and give students more personal attention.
Sometimes Fleming would sit in on the phone polling, which was conducted in the evening. He would even talk directly to the voters, but only after making clear that he was volunteering in his off-hours to talk to taxpayers.
The approach paid off. Capistrano's Measure A passed with 73 percent of voters approving the funding.
Pivotal Polling Strategies
Just last year administrators in Ohio's Worthington School District turned to Winning Connections, a Washington, D.C.-based political consulting group, to help pass a tax levy. Having suffered defeat on the measure in November 2000, education leaders knew they needed to be on the offensive for an upcoming May 2001 vote. A telephone polling strategy by Winning Connections helped clinch the vote. After an initial telephone poll of voters, Winning Connections weeded out those who were opposed to the levy. Then, an all-out telephone campaign, conducted days before the election, reached out to those who had shown empathy in the past. They were reminded to get to the polls. The levy was passed, by 53 percent of voters In November, only 43 percent voted for the measure.
Eighth Time is a Charm
Worthington followed in the steps of a school district in Groveport, Ohio, which was up against even greater obstacles in 1998. Superintendent Ross Dunlap had watched voters defeat seven earlier tax levy attempts. "There was resistance to supporting school issues because voters felt there was a better way to fund schools than simply relying heavily on property taxes," explains Dunlap, superintendent of Eastland-Fairfield Career and Technical Schools, which serve 1,069 students from various counties.
Dunlap needed help to pass the levy going before voters for an eighth time. "The task of getting the message out was pretty overwhelming," says Dunlap. The superintendent was first made clear about his restrictions. Ohio law prohibits a superintendent from advocating for a tax levy. He could present facts, but not suggest solutions to financial problems.
"By May 1997, our district was in financial trouble," says Dunlap, who adds that he routinely repeated this basic message to voters, while stating that he was not necessarily advocating for the levy. The district was seeking to replace operating funds that were provided by an expired mill rate increase, which was valid for only a five-year span and dropped in 1992. Gone went $3 million in additional property taxes.
Winning Connections, led by national consultant John Jameson, helped Dunlap develop a business plan. Local business leaders were asked for either monetary contributions or donations of goods and services, such as promotional printing. While there were some large contributors, most of the $60,000 raised came from small businesses that gave, at most, $100. Winning Connections was paid from the funds raised.
Winning Connections made at least 5,000 calls to voters. As with other campaigns, the consultants made note of the empathetic voters, and made eleventh hour reminders to get out the vote.
The levy passed, granting the school district $3.2 million for staffing, operating expenses, services and supplies, says Dunlap, whose total budget is $14 million. He credits the work of Winning Connections in ending the seven-year "election drought."
Jean Marie Angelo, email@example.com, is senior editor.